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Sic Semper Tyrannis

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ebola mis-handled in Madison

I support the study of highly infectious and deadly viruses and bacteria in Madison in conjunction with UW, but it is things like this keeps me from duking it out too much with those who oppose it.

n 2005 and into the summer of 2006, researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (UW) made and manipulated copies of the entire Ebola virus genome without proper safety precautions. Although federal safety rules required a maximum protection Biosafety Level Four (BSL-4) lab for the research, UW allowed it to proceed at the much less safe and secure BSL-3 level.

The rules that UW broke are intended to ensure that extremely dangerous agents that are easily transmissible and usually incurable don't escape maximum containment. They prohibit working at BSL-3 with Ebola (and similarly dangerous) virus material that has not been rendered irreversibly incapable of reproducing. UW does not have a BSL-4 lab suitable for handling Ebola virus, which is one of the most dangerous pathogens in the world.

Despite the contrary provisions of the NIH Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules, permission for UW scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka to perform the Ebola genome work at BSL-3 was granted by the University of Wisconsin Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC). This significant violation of NIH Guidelines was not detected in a timely manner by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or, apparently, by the CDC Select Agent Program staff that inspect the Kawaoka lab.

An oversight? Most likely, but for the safety of the researchers and for the larger community, oversights are unacceptable when working with potentially highly contagious and deadly pathogens. And the most remarkable thing is nobody caught it until Kawaoka attempted to get the safety level of the lab lowered to BSL-2.