University Strengthens Lab Security Following Bird Flu Virus Controversy

The University of Wisconsin (Madison) has tightened security precautions around laboratories that work with dangerous disease agents even as the school has become involved in a public controversy over a study that resulted in a more transmissible strain of bird flu, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on Tuesday (see GSN, May 13, 2010).

University researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka led a team of scientists in creating a strain of the highly potent H5N1 virus that could more easily be passed between mammals (see GSN, Jan. 26).  Publication of details of the research in the journal Nature was placed in limbo when the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity late last year advised against releasing specific study data that biodefense analysts worried could be used by bad actors to duplicate the research with the goal of producing a biological weapon.

Full publication of Kawaoka's findings and of a similar study conducted by Dutch scientists is now anticipated in a matter of months, based upon the recommendation of an expert group convened by the World Health Organization (see GSN, Feb. 21).

In the meantime, university officials are now withholding information that they formerly released, such as the identities of scientists conducting research in Biosafety Level 3 laboratories. Such facilities are authorized to perform research with some of the most dangerous disease agents. In 2008, the names of researchers working in BSL-3 laboratories were released to the public.

"There is a much more heightened sense of awareness" about the importance of biosecurity, UW (Madison) graduate school Associate Dean Bill Mellon told the Journal.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity in 2007 released advisories for the "identification, review, conduct, and communication of dual-use research" that can be put to both positive and negative uses. Following the bird flu study controversy, those recommendations are coming under new consideration and could result in new regulations for institutions such as the University of Wisconsin that work with select agents, Mellon said.

At present, universities are not obligated to follow special security strictures for dual-use research.

“There is the suggestion that the institution itself define ways in which dual use be handled. We’re waiting to see how this will shake out," Mellon said.

The university came under scrutiny in recent years when it was learned that the laboratory of researcher Gary Splitter formed an antibiotic-resistant strain of brucellosis, which can be passed to humans, without receiving appropriate federal and local approval, according to previous reporting. The National Institutes of Health called the research a "major action violation'" and ordered the university to pay a $40,000 penalty.

Following that incident, the university added a new biosafety officer to its staff and increased his office's budget by more than twofold.

Campus biological laboratories are now subject to annual inspections and researchers must attend three special trainings on laboratory procedures, biosafety officer Jim Turk said (David Wahlberg, Wisconsin State Journal, Feb. 21).

February 24, 2012
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The University of Wisconsin (Madison) has tightened security precautions around laboratories that work with dangerous disease agents even as the school has become involved in a public controversy over a study that resulted in a more transmissible strain of bird flu, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on Tuesday.

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