Officials at the University of Wisconsin, Madison say they know their labs are safe because they are inspected by the CDC. That appeal to authority suggests an absence of independent thought -- not a good trait in people charged with protecting the public from ridiculously dangerous germs.
The university has its own Institutional Biosafety Committee, the IBC, and a biosafety task force, though evidence of the latter hasn't been easy to fine. It's probably not a real thing. University spokespersons say that emergency plans are in place, and that they will spring into action in the unlikely event of a release of an insanely dangerous virus. After the fact. Like the response to the man infected with Ebola who was allowed to get on a plane and disembark in the most densely populated city in Africa.
The biosafety problems at the CDC's and UW-Madison's infectious disease labs have close and informative parallels with the problems associated with the use of animals in laboratories across the U.S.
The agency responsible for oversight of the use of animals in most situations is APHIS, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a part of the USDA. APHIS oversight of animal welfare -- in both laboratory settings and commercial dog breeding -- has been found to be woefully ineffective by the USDA's Office of the Inspector General. The NIH also has a nominal oversight role. It's Office of Laboratory Welfare (OLAW) relies on universities self-reporting their regulatory deviations, a recipe for slipshod operations, limited reporting, and frequent violations. On-site inspections by OLAW are rare. University spokespersons say that their Animal Care and Use Committees, or ACUCs, guarantee that the animals under their control are cared for and used humanely. There is an emergency plan in place to deal with some animal health problems.
It is the nature of much research at the university that some projects are subject to both biosafety and animal use oversight. Theoretically, a project like Yoshihiro Kawaoka's influenza experiments using ferrets are subject to oversight by the NIH, CDC, USDA, and the IBC and an ACUC. If pushed, the university could probably name even a few more nominal watchdogs.
That sounds great. Except that the NIH acted only after UW-Madison researcher Gary Splitter's students had violated it's Major Action rules.
Under the NIH Guidelines, the term "Major Action" means that NIH Director approval is required. Only one type of experiment requires NIH Director approval -- the deliberate transfer of a drug resistance trait to a microorganism when such resistance could compromise the ability to control the disease agent in humans, veterinary medicine, or agriculture (see Section III-A-l-a of the NIH Guidelines).The CDC's culture of disregard for biosafety rules and its multiple mistakes and accidents have been the subject of much recent reporting. The CDC's animal care problems are less well known but no less troubling, at least to people like me who think that hurting animals ought to be recognized as a serious crime. The USDA promotes the use and consumption of animals; its problems enforcing the minimal restraints on abusive practices in labs shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.
The university's IBC and its ACUCs aren't genuine oversight bodies. Their very practiced role is to make sure that the minimal federal rules are more or less adhered to. The members of the committees are participants in the activities they are charged with overseeing. This is one of the systemic problems identified as one of the causes of the CDC's dangerous mistakes and accidents: insiders being relied on to regulate themselves. That hasn't worked well for prisons or nursing homes either. One university biosafety committee member has said that the IBC is more of an advocate of the research than it is a critical evaluator of the safety procedures. Cheerleading for the very thing the oversight committee members are supposed to be evaluating is rife within the ACUCs membership and the senior officials charged with oversight duties.
The misleadingly named little group "Speaking of Research" is an extremist U.S. spin-off of a pro-animal experimentation fringe group founded by a fifteen year-old boy in England. The British group aptly called themselves "Pro-Test." To get a feel for who these people are, watch this video. UCLA monkey vivisector Dario Ringatch, the principal behind the group, can be seen a few times on the edge of screen, but he stays pretty much out of sight. His odd and loud pot-bellied side-kick, monkey vivisector David Jentsch, is one of the video's main characters. I mention this only because it may inform your response to me telling you that Eric Sandgren, director of the of UW-Madison's Research Animal Resource Center (RARC) and go-to spokesperson for issues involving the university's use of animals, is also a quasi-(full dues paying?) member of the group. He has contributed to the group's website and was instrumental in bringing Ringatch to UW-Madison to publicly spew his elitist and deranged world view.
Oversight of animal use at the university is strongly influenced, maybe even somewhat controlled by Eric Sandgren. He is a callous liar.
That's harsh. To be fair, it's not entirely Eric Sandgren's fault that he participates in, promotes, lies about, and defends cruel experiments on animals. It wasn't entirely Adolph Eichmann's fault that he kept the trains running smoothly. (My finger is worn out from pointing to the body of research demonstrating that people will and do generally behave immorally when immersed in a system that supports their poor behavior.)
One of the problems at the CDC labs is that the inevitable, really, genuinely inevitable, consequences of trying to be being careful, or doing much of anything else repetitively and routinely over time, is that we -- you and me, human beings in general, probably all of us with minds -- eventually become enured to the hypothetical risks, become complacent, and make mistakes. This is inevitable. It is a fact of life and of who we are. Here's an interesting study of laboratory accidents and a self-reported explanation for why so many accidents occur.
In both cases -- the failures of the oversight of infectious disease research and the failures of the oversight of the use of animals -- the regulatory problems that plague the systems have quite a few common causes.
There is though, an important difference between the oversight failures involving animal care and use and the oversight failures involving infectious disease research.
In the case of infectious disease research, biased perspectives lead only to an increased risk of billions of humans and other animals being killed in short order.
In the case of animal care and use, oversight failures and biased perspectives lead absolutely and immediately to animals being hurt and killed.
The infectious disease oversight failures have the potential of leading to the deaths of billions of people and animals, but that's a only a potential cost. Animal care and use oversight failures have a demonstrated history of being the direct cause of inhumane treatment, even by the institutions' own self-serving low standards.
Just as defending and sheltering cruelty to the animals being used in the university's research gravy train of tax dollars contributes to a culture of only cursory oversight and moral reliance on the institution's manufactured public relations public image, so too does the defense and promotion of speculative experiments that put us all at such grave risk. Everyone at the university is complicit to some degree in both cases: researchers, lab techs, administrators, cafeteria workers, English professors, music teachers, coaches, students, you name it.
The average German kept her mouth shut when people started being rounded up. But doing so resulted in only 10 to 20 million people being killed over a period of years. The 1918 Spanish flu killed somewhere between three and five percent of the human population, 50 to 100 million out of a population of about 1.8 billion, in a matter of months.
In today's terms, with about 7 billion of us crowded together, flying all over the place, a similar mortality rate would mean that we could expect somewhere between about 200 and 400 million of us dying; perhaps many more given the nature of the germs being invented all because Yoshihiro Kawaoka is hoping to come up with a better and marketable flu vaccine.
This seems like something people ought to be speaking out about as well as asking their legislators to stop.