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Report: July 28 public meeting regarding OHSU's bio-terror lab proposals

On Monday July 28, about 65 people attended a public meeting to talk about OHSU's proposals to build bio-terrorism labs. The meetings was in Hillsboro sponsored by the Citizen Participation Organization (CPO) #9.
OHSU representative Lesley Hallick started the meeting off with OHSU's presentation of what the grant proposals were, their rationale for seeking the grants, and then took questions. Dr. Jay Nelson, Director of the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at OHSU's West Campus, was also attending to answer questions. Matt Rossell from In Defense of Animals (IDA) made his presentation opposing the proposals, and any increase in animal research at OHSU followed by more questions from the participants. It was a spirited meeting and while there were a number animal rights activists there, there were also numerous other concerned people.

Other than OHSU employees, every person who spoke during the meeting was critical of the proposed lab. A number of times most of the people in the room clapped when someone made a strong point for why the proposals should not be awarded to OHSU.

OHSU has submitted 3 proposals.

The first proposal is a scientific proposal to host an RCE (Regional Centers of Excellence) where a group of scientists from around the country come together in one location, in this case at OHSU, to do basic research. No new facilities are proposed as this is foundational research not directly involving dangerous pathogens.

The other 2 proposals involve the building of new bio-facilities in Hillsboro.

The second proposal is for a bsl-3 (Biological Safety Lab level 3). There are already bsl-3 facilities at OHSU. Hallick did not speak specifically about this proposed facility.

The third proposal, is for a bsl-4 facility, the highest level of biological security, which would house the most virulent contagions such as Ebola, Anthrax, Smallpox, Hantavirus and so on.

Is OHSU likely to get the grant and build a level 4 facility?

"...now, we knew it was a longshot" (refering to the level-4 facility) "they are only going to fund one or two in the country" These quotes from OHSU make it appear that there is little chance of their winning the proposals.

Closer examination seems to indicate a different story. NIH (National Institute of Health) wants to select one bsl-4 facility for the west coast and there are only 2 applicants on the west coast - UC Davis and OHSU - Since NIH has stated that public acceptance is a factor in the selection process, and the Davis mayor has reversed her support due to public outcry against the lab, this indicates that OHSU actually has a decent chance of being approved for the lab.

Also, Sunshine Project suggests that as many as a dozen bsl-4 labs are to be funded, which is counter to Hallick's statement regarding the funding of "1 or 2 labs". Perhaps Hallick means this year, however even if OHSU does not receive this particular grant, there will be others. OHSU is certainly a likely candidate so public discourse is warranted and necessary, even though OHSU does not appear to want it.

Is It Safe?

At one of the other 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."

Yakov Kharif from Portland spoke at the CPO meeting about Chernobyl and how the Russian scientists were so assured that nothing could go wrong. Everyone knows what happened there. He also mentioned an escape of anthrax from a top security facility. Fortunately that day in the late 1970's the wind was blowing the anthrax away from the nearby city, otherwise the death toll could have been in the thousands, rather than the 60-100 people who died. His basic point was that there is no such thing as perfect security and that it is the height of folly to locate such deadly contagions in an urban environment. The room applauded at his comments. One woman said "you could have this out in the countryside far from the population. I mean if you are talking about getting vaccines to the population, I don't think transportation is a big deal."

Hallick replied "it isn't the transportation that is the big deal... the reason they funded this to the Universities rather than building it out in the desert, is that the science is in the Universities and the very people you need to design these don't go to those facilities and that's why they are not doing it that way." "they wont go, that is just a fact" (referring to the scientists)

So here is Hallick presenting this as work of pressing national importance and the scientists just wont go? It is extremely irresponsible of OHSU to risk exposure of hundreds of thousands of people to escape of deadly contagions just because it is inconvenient for those few scientists.

Matt Rossell, former primate technician at OHSU's primate center, stated that monkeys have repeatedly escaped from the center and workers have ignored safety protocols in the existing BSL-3 HIV lab. 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. With a poor track record of adherence to safety protocols, should OHSU be trusted with even more deadly diseases?

One person raised the point that "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 attacks] 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?"

The government has not even figured out exactly what happened. The one thing that is known for sure is that the anthrax came from a top secret U.S. lab. This was illegal, highly weaponized anthrax Congress didn't even know about.

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.

OHSU maintains that there has never been a leak from a bsl-4 lab (ignoring the anthrax used in the attacks which is believed to have originated at Ft. Detrick's bsl-4 lab) however the more such labs you build, the greater the risk. The more you transport such contagions to different labs around the country, the more likely an accident or theft. OHSU's point is also ignoring that since Sept 11th 2001 when security was heightened, there have been 2 incidents at Ft. Detrick of anthrax being found outside bio-secured areas.

Is It Needed?

Perhaps governmental leaders are more concerned with the appearance of doing something than actually doing something. The pay-out to the National Institutes of Health, $1.3 billion of which they are expected to spend in the first year ($5.9 Billion total from Homeland Security) is unprecedented in medical research history. Even diseases that have actually killed some Americans like HIV and cancer have not attracted such a dramatic flood of funding. Possibly, the NAIAD did not have the mechanism to deal with so much money, and instead of giving it back, decided to build a half dozen of the most expensive things they could think of. There is no oversight on whether or not this proliferation of high security labs is redundant.

The type of research that is done in such labs is very specialized. They work with high profile pathogens that have a scary reputation and which are deadly, yet have not actually killed many people. The amount of work with these deadly contagions that may actually be needed can be done at existing facilities and that money can be better spent elsewhere. We do not need yet another high dollar pork project.

An increasing number or doctors and scientists believe that animal research is not the way to find cures and vaccines for human disease. (for more info http://www.curedisease.com) 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.

"What good does it do you to test something (a vaccine) in a monkey? You find five or six years from now that it works in the monkey, and then you test it in humans and you realize that humans behave totally differently from monkeys, so you've wasted five years." -Dr. Mark Feinberg, a leading AIDS researcher, Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 21, 1997

Nobody has demonstrated that these labs are at all useful and the ability to question them is greatly hampered by the shroud of secrecy.

Is there public accountability?

According to OHSU's website: "OHSU is planning open and frequent discussions with the community about these proposed research facilities. Communication plans include public meetings..." What has happened however, is another story. Many of the other applicants for these grants made public their plans last December, while OHSU said nothing until February. Now it is late August and OHSU has not had public meetings about the proposed facilities with the selection process likely complete by September, perhaps just weeks away.

One question asked at the July 28th meeting of both Hallick and Dr. Nelson, if they won the grant, would go ahead with the project even if there were strong public opposition. Both declined to directly answer the question. The question was repeated a number of times without any clear answer. Elaine Close, from CAAT (Coalition Against Animal Testing), suggested that people should look at OHSU's track record of public transparency and of listening to community input. She mentioned the Marquam Hill tram and how the community there is strongly against it. She also pointed out that OHSU has for years refused debate on the scientific validity of animal research. Finally she explained how citizens have had to sue OHSU (who lost) for the release of public information. These examples, and the obvious manner in which both Hallick and Nelson avoided answering most of the citizens questions led even people who entered the meeting without a position on the matter feeling very concerned.

The issue of accountability goes beyond OHSU's history of secrecy and lack of concern for public participation. The Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 made it illegal for OHSU to even tell the public if there were some accident, or near accident. It is illegal for OHSU to inform the public what pathogens would actually be contained in the lab. These labs will be cloaked in a blanket of 'national security' and there will be no meaningful public oversight over adherence to safety regulations; regulations which OHSU has a history of violating. At the July 28th meeting, the OHSU representatives admitted that OHSU does not have full control over the use of these proposed labs. Research indicates that OHSU actually will have no control at all over research priorities. The money and control lie with the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. In otherwords, the military could use the lab and in total secrecy if it chooses to. OHSU danced around this question without giving a clear answer.

The U.S. is refusing to participate in international biological weapons monitoring treaties. The only attack against U.S. citizens came from secret and illegal (by international treaty signed by the U.S.) weaponized anthrax that came from just such a lab. Scientists in the field are themselves saying that these labs increase the danger and serve no useful purpose. There is no public aversight and accountability and even OHSU will not be able to say anything about what goes on in these facilities.

Concerned people, not just in Portland but around the country should speak up and demand that some light be shed on these dark dealings.

[ nobioterrorlab.org website | 'Stop the UCD Biolab' website | Previous Feature- Website launch - No Bio-terrorism lab at OHSU | From Portland Alliance- Controversy Grows Around Proposed OHSU Bio-terrorism Lab | meeting announcement ]