AUSTIN, Texas – Hurricane Ike’s timing – just a week before the opening of Galveston’s massive national biodefense lab – is raising new questions about the prudence of housing deadly pathogens on a disaster-prone island.
Biosafety experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch say the $175 million Galveston National Lab and their other high security research labs are sturdy enough to withstand almost any natural disaster. They note that Ike, whose devastating winds and monstrous waves washed away much of Galveston, left the university’s biodefense research facilities completely intact.
But opponents of the new lab, which will research some of the world’s most dangerous diseases, say housing it in a heavy hurricane zone is just asking for accidents. Biological agents stored at the lab, which is less than a mile from the seawall, could leak out after damaging winds or flooding, they say – or could be looted by rioters in post-disaster mayhem.
“What happens if there’s a hurricane that’s even stronger than what they’ve designed for?” asked Edward Hammond, a lab safety watchdog. “Lab accidents happen despite our best efforts to build systems that are immune to them. The location seems to almost dictate that, at a minimum, you’ll have a big setback in the research agenda nearly annually.”
UTMB officials have worked for years to convince local residents that the new lab – and the existing ones – are safe. Their facilities are built to withstand tornadoes, which can have stronger winds than many hurricanes. And dangerous agents are stored in powerful industrial refrigerators, with chemicals that can keep them cool for at least three weeks.
University spokeswoman Chris Comer said the national lab, which is not yet open for research or specimens, withstood this weekend’s storm well. At the campus’s other high security labs, there was some minor flooding in an unused basement and a couple of generators failed, she said, but nothing that endangered any of the research conducted there. Every potentially dangerous agent was in vaulted storage or refrigerators long before Ike hit.
But accidents do happen – and UTMB isn’t immune to them.
In January, university officials temporarily shut down a biohazard lab after an internal door failed twice during experiments with the avian flu. No pathogens were released, and no one fell ill. In 2005, a different door failed, the result of being mistakenly programmed to open during a power failure.
In the last five years, UTMB has recorded 17 cases of potential exposure to infectious diseases, none of which resulted in infections. Only one case – where a lab worker was pricked by a needle used on a mouse being treated for anthrax poisoning – was serious enough to be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.