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Level 3 labs need closer examination

Wednesday, July 18, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:09 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

Thank you for putting the MU level 3 biocontainment lab on the front page of the Missourian on Wednesday. In my experience, very few people in Columbia have known anything about it. Since the focus of this lab will include research and training on “bio-terrorism pathogens” we need to stay awake.

Your article quoted the local and federal “powers-that-be” reassuring us in detail about safety and back-up safety features, HEPA filters, etc. That helps, but ...

Just last month lightning struck a brand new, state-of-the-art level 4 lab in Atlanta. Power was knocked out for one hour and “the back-up power did not come on,” according to an article in the July 6 Kansas City Star. I mention this because power is critical in keeping the pathogen-laden air flowing one way only — out through the filters. Fortunately, “the world’s most deadly germs” had not yet been delivered. Ironically, this lab is being built for the top biosafety enforcement agency in our nation ­— the Center for Disease Control.

Yesterday a friend and I went to look at the campus construction site. The lab will be the highest building around. Lightning? A definite possibility. Tornadoes? Why not? Remember the tornado that took roofs off homes in the Southridge subdivision in November of 1998.

What do we do if these pathogens escape?

What about human error, miscommunication, materials’ failure, and failure to disclose the truth to authorities or the public? The latter just happened at Texas A&M. For examples involving a level 3 facility operational for decades, you can Google “Plum Island Lab Problems” or go to sunshineproject.org. Or you can turn to the July 5 issue of VOX for the short list. Thirty vials of Bubonic Plague “accidently” shipped to Tanzania makes an impression on me!

And, yes, level 3 labs are springing up all over the place — mostly in populated areas — but this one isn’t just about tissue cultures or guinea pigs and rats (the small stuff). If you look on page 37 of this summer’s issue of MU’s alumni magazine, MIZZOU, you will see a photo and description of this lab. This facility is being built right next to the Swine Research and Resource Center. They were apparently funded at the same time, and the description mentions “small animal vivarium and necropsy rooms”. They will likely be infecting their genetically modified swine, and perhaps incinerating them after the “necropsy” part. The infected wastes and carcasses of such animals pose a greater disposal challenge and risk than with smaller research subjects.

Today I went directly to MU’s own Web site — rbl.missouri.edu — and looked around. In the FAQ section I found this:

Q: What is the safety record of BSL-3 research laboratories?

A: BSL-3 research laboratories have a spotless record of biosafety.

Spotless. Wow.

This from the people we depend on to tell us the truth when things go wrong.

Maybe we need to talk about this more.


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