Monday, October 12, 2009

BSL-3s are Hazardous to Your Health

This is an addendum to an opinion I had published in the Isthmus on October 8, 2009: “Say no to new UW-Madison germ lab.” Space limitations did not allow me to point out other reasons to be concerned about the proliferation of BSL-3 labs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and elsewhere.

The rules governing procedures used at these labs to safeguard workers and the public are necessarily based on what is known about the organisms and agents being studied. But emerging technologies are allowing ever-easier genetic manipulations. The results of these manipulations are generally unpredictable. An organism that is only mildly virulent could become much more dangerous without warning and much harder to contain.

A recent nearby example of unrecognized risk, and thus potentially insufficient biosafety procedures, was the death of University of Chicago Professor Malcolm J. Casadaban on September 13, 2009. According to the Chicago Sun-Times:
An initial autopsy showed that Casadaban ‘showed no obvious cause of death’ except for the presence of the weakened strain of the plague bacteria Yersinia pestis in his blood, the U. of C. Medical Center said in a statement. …

Because this form of the bacteria is not known to cause problems in healthy people, special safety procedures are not required to handle it, said Dr. Kenneth Alexander, a virologist and chief of pediatric infections at the U. of C. Medical Center. …

Two key questions in Casadaban's death will be whether there was anything different about the strain of bacteria he was handling and whether Casadaban had any underlying conditions that may have made him more susceptible to infection…”. (Monifa Thomas. “Plague researcher dies of infection: Autopsy shows weakened strain of bacteria in blood of U. of C. prof -- officials say no public health threat.”)
The proliferation of BSL-3 labs (and even more alarming, BSL-4 labs) means that more pools of deadly organisms are being maintained in more locations around the county. Probability makes it inevitable that more accidents will occur. As these labs are built and put into operation, more disease-causing organisms are being mailed around the world.

A recent near miss was the discovery that tissues taken from pigs who had died in Vietnam of a suspected outbreak of “blue ear disease” (PPRSV, or Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome Virus), were sent to Plum Island, the BSL-3 federal laboratory near Long Island, New York. There appears to be some controversy as to whether blue ear disease should be studied in a BSL-2 or BSL-3 laboratory.

It turns out that the pigs didn’t die of blue ear. They died of Ebola. Fortunately for everyone involved, it was the benign-to-humans strain known as Reston Ebola, but this was just dumb luck. (See: Jennifer Landes. "Move Over Swine Flu, Ebola’s Back: Porcine discovery rouses moribund Plum Island." The East Hampton Star. July 16, 2009.)

And finally, though I alluded to it in the Isthmus, the human factor may be the greatest risk of all, and not just human error. Sometime in the first few days of September 2009, lab assistant Raymond Clark III apparently murdered 24-year-old vivisector Annie Le and hid her body in a wall cavity in a lab complex at Yale University. Why he did this, assuming he did, hardly matters. The real concern is that someone with access to a high security lab was willing to commit murder.

According to one article, “Access to the basement area where her corpse was found is restricted to certain specially authorized individuals who must use their Yale identification cards to access the floor.”

What if Clark had worked in a BSL-3 lab tending mice being infected with SARS or one of the other dangerous diseases studied in these labs? What if he had gotten angry with city officials instead of a co-worker? Would he have tried to unleash the plague in City Hall, or on the bus?

It is clear is that the risk of these diseases being accidentally or intentionally released into the community increases along with the proliferation of these labs. Given UW-Madison’s history of violating NIH and CDC regulations governing biosafety, the university’s history of lying to the public, of ignoring state laws, and their erroneous evaluation of the biohazard risks associated with these labs, it makes absolutely no sense to allow them to keep building and operating these potentially deadly facilities.

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