The University of Hawaii has acquired several potential bioterrorism viruses, some of which cause encephalitis.
The viruses were brought in as part of a push by the university to specialize in infectious disease detection and drug discovery through research on avian flu, dengue fever, West Nile virus and SARS.
State records released to The Honolulu Advertiser show the encephalitis-causing viruses include Japanese B, Eastern equine and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. Eastern equine encephalitis is considered one of the most serious mosquito-borne diseases in the United States because of its high mortality rate.
Encephalitis is an enlargement of the brain that can cause neurological damage.
Researchers claim there’s little risk of public exposure to the viruses because access is tightly controlled, but at the same time they opposed their disclosure on the grounds that confidentiality was essential to security efforts.
“The risk is very minimal, primarily because we’re going to follow good laboratory practice here,” said Duane Gubler, director of Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases the university medical school. “I would like to say there’s almost no risk involved here because if there is a risk, then we shouldn’t even be operational.”
The university doesn’t have any plans to conduct research on the viruses, which are being kept to aid in disease detection, Gubler said.
“The whole purpose is to build a center of excellence in tropical and infectious diseases here,” Gubler said. “You can’t do that without the bugs.”
Maui physician Lorrin Pang, who has served as a World Health Organization consultant, agreed that the risk of accidental exposure to encephalitis is relatively low.
But she said it’s still possible for the bugs to escape the laboratory through negligence or terrorism.
“If you say, ‘No, we’re just holding it for diagnostic (and) we’re not planning to meddle with it,’ why did you have to bring live stuff in?” Pang asked. “Why are we going to call it in and have it just sit around, because there’s mischief and maliciousness all the time?”
The virus identities were originally made public at a Board of Agriculture board meeting in 2003, but the meeting received little media attention.
The university asked the Department of Agriculture not to reveal the identities of the encephalitis viruses in January. But the state recently disclosed the names and types of viruses because they had been publicly released in the 2003 board meeting.
“I want transparency on the principles” governing public disclosure of virus identities, Pang said. “When do you tell the public and when do you not? What are the reasons?”
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