Saturday, December 29, 2007

Aggie administrators ignore risk from bioterrorism research

Viruses created as bioweapons rank among technology's most grim contributions to the human experiment, but too often those researching these deadly bugs seem quite callous and casual about the risk of spreading them to the public.

I've written before that we've met the bioterrorism threat in Texas and it is us, but you wouldn't know it from how our state leaders behave. Texas A&M University claims it's ready to re-certify it's biodefense lab after a lab worker was accidentally exposed to a virus during an experiment this summer. Reports AP:

After learning about lab workers' exposure to bioweapons agents, the CDC launched an investigation that uncovered other failures, including several missing vials of Brucella and at least seven cases in which the school allowed unauthorized access to select agents.

Edward Hammond, director of The Sunshine Project, an Austin-based bioweapon watchdog, said university officials were "excessively optimistic" when they said publicly that they expected to be up and running by the end of 2007.

"When they said that, they were trying to put a spin on it, trying to trivialize, to minimize, the implications of what had happened," Hammond said. "They thought this was a problem minor enough to be fixed in short order. Turns out, that's not the case."

The Sunshine Project first discovered that workers had been exposed to the toxic agents while researching the universities vying to host a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. Texas A&M had been among the applicants for the homeland security project.

American biodefense labs have experienced more than 100 accidents or missing shipments since 2003, and more deadly viruses and toxins are being transported routinely among more labs than ever before.

Upon studying bioterror threats at some length as a member of Texas' Bioterrorism Preparedness Task Force several years ago, I became convinced that a graver risk existed from an accident among our own domestic "defense" programs than from Al Qaeda or some terrorist group. Perhaps the most concise statement of my views on the subject was laid out in this 2004 letter to a Texas Senate committee. (I notice Jay Kimbrough, then the Governor's homeland security guru, was cc'd on the 2004 letter, so at least he's heard these arguments before.)

Not every Texas university needs a BSL-3 or BSL-4 lab to handle the planet's most deadly bugs. The existing labs in Galveston and San Antonio mean Texas already does more than it's share of biodefense research, and I don't think officials pursuing the expanded lab at A&M have fully grokked the massive potential risk that comes along with the new federal dollars they're pursuing. We shouldn't have to wait until another labworker is exposed, they walk outside onto the campus and kill a bunch of hapless Aggies before these concerns are taken more seriously.

At a minimum I wish officials weren't in such a rush to get the lab back online. It's one thing for Mike McKinney and Jay Kimbrough to say the lab is ready to go, but I'd feel a lot better if the CDC and the Sunshine Project agreed with their assessment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A&M needs to think very carefully about allowing this lab to be operational. These kinds of labs need high security monitoring and accountability. Surely they don't want any lives lost because of human error and legal repercussions they might be slapped with.