The University of Wisconsin-Madison allowed a star researcher to study material that could be used to produce the Ebola virus in a lab less secure than what’s required under federal guidelines.
The study was stopped last fall after a National Institutes of Health official told the university the material must be contained at labs with the highest level of security, or Biosafety Level 4.
Researcher Yoshi Kawaoka, his colleagues and the public were never at risk because the deadly virus itself was never present in the lab, said UW-Madison biological safety officer Jan Klein.
“It’s more of a technical violation than a safety violation. No one was at risk,” she said. “It was a matter of how you read the guidelines. NIH took a broader read of the guidelines than we were aware of and we were using.”
A NIH spokesman said he was looking into the matter and had no immediate comment.
Kawaoka, a professor of virology in the School of Veterinary Medicine, was traveling at a meeting in Chicago on Wednesday and did not immediately return an e-mail message.
One of the university’s brightest stars, Kawaoka is a leading researcher on infectious diseases such as bird flu and Ebola. The university retained him last year by promising to build a $9 million research institute after he received a lucrative offer from the University of Pittsburgh.
The federally funded study aimed to better understand the Ebola virus, one of the most dangerous pathogens on earth. To do so, researchers were studying DNA copies of the virus. Klein said scientists could produce an infectious virus if they combined the material with “additional components.”
“But that was not part of any planned experiment and would not be done by accident,” she said.
Still, a watchdog group said Wednesday the case illustrates lax university and federal oversight of research involving potentially dangerous agents.
“The UW looked federal guidance in the face and ignored it,” said Edward Hammond, director of the Austin, Tex.-based Sunshine Project. “If the federal government isn’t keeping careful tabs on Ebola labs, I’m a bit scared. I think others should be as well.”
The group, which works to limit access to biological weapons agents, on Wednesday released documents related to the study that it obtained through an open records request.
Hammond questioned whether the university allowed the research to go forward out of favoritism to Kawaoka.
“The University of Wisconsin is willing to go to great lengths to keep Kawaoka there,” he said. “Maybe that influenced their review of his research.”
Klein denied that was the case. She said a university committee approved Kawaoka’s research for a Biosafety Level 3 lab after performing a required risk assessment.
She said the university has about a dozen Level 3 labs but none that are Level 4, which have the most stringent guidelines meant to ensure pathogens cannot escape.
Kawaoka was actually pressing to relax the safety guidelines further by asking whether the study could take place in a Level 2 lab, Klein said. That’s when the university asked NIH for guidance and learned the material was restricted to a Level 4 lab.
UW-Madison spokesman Terry Devitt said the research was immediately stopped in Madison and relocated to a higher security Canadian lab.
Klein said the episode has had no other repercussions.
“He is a very compliant researcher. He understands that his credibility is in jeopardy for doing anything that might jeopardize the safety of his personnel and those of his colleagues in his community,” she said. “He’s always been extraordinarily responsive and a pleasure to work with.”
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