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Controversy Grows Around Proposed OHSU Bio-terrorism Lab

At one of the proposed BSL-4 sites, the University of California, Davis, faculty believe the lab would not be safe and signed a petition stating: "We would be poor scholars of American history, however, if we did not heed the legacy of leaks, spills, fires, explosions, mismanagement, and accidents associated with UC's own Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories." Jim Orzechowski, former designer of U.S.BSL-4 labs, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times, June 25 2003: "You never get the straight stories...None of those laboratories can meet their own requirements in terms of containment." He also stated, referring to the new labs, "We're getting as close to fail-safe as possible...as fail-safe as the space shuttle."
OHSU is attempting to join the "war on terrorism" by applying for grants to build two biodefense labs which would conduct animal research on potential bioweapons. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is planning up to a dozen "Centers of Biodefense Excellence", which would be biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories, the highest level of biological security. 2.5 billion dollars has been allocated by the federal government for 2003 to build and upgrade biodefense labs as part of Operation Bioshield.

OHSU has applied for 3 grants totaling $200 million, one of which would fund the construction of a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory. This type of lab would house the most virulent contagions such as Ebola, anthrax, smallpox and Hantavirus at their west campus on NW 185th in Hillsboro.

Currently there are 5 full biosafety level 4 labs and one "glovebox" BSL-4 lab in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, USAMRIID / NIH in Fort Detrick, Maryland, the Southwest Institute for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas, at the University of Texas, Galveston and the "glovebox BSL-4 at Georgia State University in Atlanta. OHSU's west campus, also called the Oregon National Primate Research Center, is a candidate because of its existing BSL- 3 labs and its abundant supply of research animals. The center currently has about 3,200 monkeys and an unknown number of other species.

People in the Hillsboro and Portland area have voiced opposition to the lab mainly because of safety concerns and questions about OHSU's level of public accountability. There has been very little public discussion of the proposal but the issue was raised at a well attended Citizen Participation Organization (CPO) meeting in Hillsboro on July 28th. At this meeting, OHSU representatives, Provost Lesley Hallick, director of the OHSU Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute Jay Nelson and public relations representative Lisa Godwin presented their case for the new lab and Matt Rossell, former primate technician at OHSU's primate center, presented arguments against the lab. OHSU spoke about the need to develop new vaccines for potential bioweapons and emerging diseases and the seven layers of safety measures the lab would have.

Rossell claimed the lab would endanger the public, citing the safety protocol violations he witnessed while working at the primate center. He also discussed the unreliability of animal data when trying to find vaccines for human disease. The history of vaccine research is full of examples of animal data misleading scientists and doctors and of vaccines killing people after testing safe in monkeys. Monkeys have repeatedly escaped from the primate center and according to Rossell, workers ignored safety protocols in the existing BSL-3 HIV lab. While working there he witnessed monkeys moved from the Level 3 lab and returned to the main monkey population. (Protocols require that animals never leave the level 3 labs alive). He also saw calves infected with cryptosporidia, a deadly waterborne bacteria, secreted out and given to a technician to take home. Rossell stated "tens of thousands of animals are going to die needlessly by these horrible means of death". Safety concerns have been echoed across country.

At one of the proposed BSL-4 sites, the University of California, Davis, faculty believe the lab would not be safe and signed a petition stating: "We would be poor scholars of American history, however, if we did not heed the legacy of leaks, spills, fires, explosions, mismanagement, and accidents associated with UC's own Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories." Jim Orzechowski, former designer of U.S.BSL-4 labs, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times, June 25 2003: "You never get the straight stories...None of those laboratories can meet their own requirements in terms of containment." He also stated, referring to the new labs, "We're getting as close to fail-safe as possible...as fail-safe as the space shuttle."

Critics worry that instead of lessening the threat of bioterrorism, that these labs would increase the threat by making contagions available to more people. In a statement given to UPI, Dr. Richard Ebright, a microbiologist who directs a laboratory at the Waksman Institute at Rutgers University said that "Each new facility that maintains stocks of agents for biowarfare or bioterrorism becomes a potential source of deliberate or accidental releases and each additional person trained in handling those agents and possessing those agents becomes an additional possible point of deliberate or accidental release". In the same July 1, 2003 article, UPI printed a statement by Ebright and Nancy Connell of the Center for Biodefense, Ruy V. Lourenco Center for the Study of Emerging and Re-Emerging Pathogens, at the New Jersey Medical School: "We believe that increasing the number of institutions and people with access to bioweapons agents will increase the likelihood of their release...We find the idea of a government-sponsored, large scale multi-site building boom frightening." According to the Sunshine Project, with the proposed new biodefense labs across the country, up to 6,000 new people might have access to some of the most dangerous potential bioterrorism agents. At the Hillsboro CPO meeting, an attendee asked: "So far, to my knowledge, there's been exactly one bioterrorism incident or series thereof in the U.S., some Anthrax attacks. Now they [the anthrax strains] came from a government-funded lab. Now I'm trying to understand the logic here. Now they came from a government-funded lab. Okay, so the solution to that is the build more government funded labs?" Hallick claimed that the source of the anthrax used in the attacks is unknown. As the audience pointed out, the FBI's investigation of the anthrax attacks of 2001 determined that the anthrax strain involved was a U.S. biodefense strain and that the perpetrator was an insider trained in a government lab. A woman who lives near the Hillsboro primate center asked the OHSU representatives: "If you're not being honest about the anthrax, how do we know that you're being honest about anything else?"

At the meeting, several people asked why OHSU wants to put a lab with such deadly contagions in a populated area and not in a desert. Hallick responded that the scientists would not be willing to go there. Also expressed at the meeting were fears that the laboratory could be used by the military. The OHSU representatives answered the repeated questions about possible military use by saying the lab is not intended for this purpose. A Coalition including Physicians for Social Responsibility, Western States Legal Foundation, Citizens Education Project, Nuclear Watch of New Mexico and the Sunshine Project released a press release opposing the secrecy of the national project stating the following: "With biological weapons, the line between offense and defense is exceedingly difficult to draw. In the end, secrecy is the greatest enemy of safety. Last year, the US single-handedly blew apart an international system for inspections of these kinds of laboratories, a system that would have made great strides toward ensuring that biodefense labs aren't abused for offensive purposes. Having thumbed our nose at the world, the US is now massively expanding its biodefense program, mostly in secretive facilities. Other countries are going to be suspicious. This bodes badly for the future of biological weapons control."

Nationally, questions have been raised about the allocation of billions of dollars to combat bioterrorism when in recent years bioterrorism has killed 5 people in this country during the anthrax attacks of 2001. Critics point out that diseases such as malaria, which according to the World Health Organization kills more that 3000 children every day, should take precedence. Many people are dying simply from being unable to afford medicine. A UN report from 2000 stated that $10 billion a year would provide clean water and sanitation enough to prevent 1/3 of the 4 billion cases of diarrheal disease that kills 2 million people each year.

Concerns have also been raised that the proliferation of labs is occurring without analysis of possible redundancy. Ebright explained to UPI that the enormous budget increase has been too much for the normal granting mechanisms of NIH to absorb and that they have 1.3 billion dollars that they need to spend quickly. He explained that research grants are usually issued over a five-year period because most projects take that long to complete. Now the NIH needed projects they can complete in one year. "Obviously the best thing to do here is to give it back to Congress, but of course no agency will do that. This was the problem: How does one shovel out the money during the first year? The solution of 'how' was to go for BSL 4 facilities," Ebright said. He believes that building a large number of BSL-4 labs is extremely unlikely to have a significant positive impact on our biodefense preparedness.

One attendee at the Hillsboro CPO meeting repeatedly asked the OHSU representatives if they would proceed with the laboratory if the public were against it. The representatives refused to answer but an audience member pointed out that we need to look at OHSU's history of ignoring public concerns; for years OHSU has refused to engage in a public forum to address questions about the validity of its animal research even though the public pays for the research and OHSU plans to build a tram to their main campus (costing $15 million) despite the objections of the Marquam Hill residents. In 2000, Oregonian's voted against giving OHSU ten million dollars of the state's tobacco settlement (measure 89) and OHSU, disregarding public opinion, proceeded to ask for and receive 200 million dollars of the settlement from the legislature (SB832). OHSU's community relations plan for the BSL 4 lab states they will "provide full disclosure" and states that "Both achievements and problems will be communicated to the public to ensure continued confidence ...". Yet citizens have had to sue OHSU in the past to receive information about their research that they were illegally withholding.

People across the country have expressed concern about the lack of transparency in this project. According to a July 1 article by UPI, it will actually be illegal for these biodefense labs to share important information with the public. According to UPI, the law that began this lab expansion, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Act, made it illegal for a federal agency to reveal who has certain biological materials and what they are doing with them. This type of information has been exempted from the Freedom of Information Act. Anyone releasing this type of information can be fined up to a quarter of a million dollars. It is also forbidden to release information on security problems such as theft or release of contagions. Some of the institutions contacted by the Sunshine Project, a group that is tracking the proposed sites, will not even confirm or deny that they have made proposals.

In Boston, a coalition which includes City Councilor Chuck Turner and the Council for Responsible Genetics has been raising concerns about possible accidents and the lack of public process with the Boston University proposal. Donovan Walker, a member of the Roxbury Safety Net, one of the groups leading the coalition states on the group's website that "A release, accidental or intentional, of any of these diseases with no known cure could put at risk the more than 25,000 people living within a mile of the proposed lab and the million within 10 miles". On March 20th, a package of West Nile Virus exploded at a Federal Express building in Columbus Ohio. The anthrax used in the post-September 11th mail attacks was traced back to one of the current Biosafety level 4 labs in Fort Detrick, Maryland...Is this facility going to do research to protect us, or will it develop new bioweapons? Without any details, we have no way of making an informed judgment. Instead of making us safer, the presence of such a facility could make us more of a target for terrorist attacks". The above mentioned coalition, which includes Physicians for Social Responsibility, has asked the NIH to suspend biodefense funding to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, citing the secrecy about its research on biological weapons agents and its refusal to comply with federal biosafety guidelines. According to their Nov. 2002 press release: "The coalition contends that the $6 billion in biodefense that Congress hastily appropriated after last fall's anthrax attacks have triggered a laboratory rat race more likely to undermine US national and environmental security than to enhance it... The Coalition says that unless a national reconsideration is done, competition for biodefense funding and poor planning will combine with dangerous results, including a needless proliferation of facilities handling biowarfare agents and a spread of the knowledge needed to wage biowarfare."

Citizens in other areas where proposals have been made for the BSL-4 funds have been much more outspoken in their opposition, making Hillsboro a better candidate. The NIH is taking into consideration public response in their granting decision, which should be made this September. OHSU's representatives have claimed that getting the BSL-4 lab is a "longshot". That claim seems contradicted by the fact that the NIH would like one of these new labs to be located on the west coast and the only west coast contenders are the University of California in Davis and Hillsboro. Because of overwhelming public outcry, Davis Mayor Susie Boyd reversed her original position and will oppose the project. Boyd and the city council sent a letter to the NIH stating the lab would be unwelcome.. The April 2, 2003 issue of the Scientist stated "The calm in Oregon stands in sharp contrast to the continued furor in California". The Mayor of Hillsboro, Tom Hughes, under public pressure has agreed to invite OHSU to a city-sponsored public meeting about the proposed lab but he says he will not set up a meeting until the granting decision has been made. This will be a pointless gesture if OHSU plans to proceed despite public opposition. A woman who lives near OHSU's primate center expressed anger at just having heard about the BSL-4 lab, months after the proposal was submitted, and the fact that monkeys have repeatedly escaped: "I'm feeling really left out of the loop...that angers me...I don't think anything is totally secure."

(reprinted from the Portland Alliance)