Isle security tight for deadly viruses
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By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Sean Hao
The state approved importing the avian flu virus for training and research in January, and the controversial decision was widely reported in the media.
What hasn't been publicized, until now, is that the dengue virus, West Nile virus and several hantavirus strains also have been brought into the Islands for research. The SARS virus has been approved, but not yet imported.
The state also has given permission to import three unidentified microorganisms, including two human pathogens, that remain secret because they are seen as potential bioterrorist threats. Approval for importing the viruses was confirmed in state Department of Agriculture records requested by The Advertiser.
Use of the viruses is tightly controlled and poses little risk to the public, according to researchers. Supporters say importing these viruses has several potential advantages, including:
However, the work has raised concerns about increased risks to the health of Hawai'i residents and the state's $12 billion tourism trade should an accidental release occur.
"We have such a fragile, limited space here. Why do it in Hawai'i?" asked Bob Klein, a retired teacher living in Kihei who testified against the importation of avian flu.
Klein said he was surprised and offended by the scale of such research done in Hawai'i. "There's so much going on here that seems to be kept under wraps or secret," he said.
Virus research has not resulted in any public exposure to potentially harmful bugs, according to researchers, including those at the University of Hawai'i, where much of this work is done. And until recently, imports of such microbes have elicited little public opposition.
That changed in January when UH sought state permission to import the potentially lethal avian flu virus to train local scientists on how to identify the disease. UH got its permit despite opposition from about 15 residents who submitted testimony. The state Board of Agriculture approved importing the virus in a 6-1 vote.
Debate over the risks and benefits of importing viruses is likely to continue as researchers seek to import more disease-causing organisms. UH now wants to import the simian virus, which has been investigated as a source of cancer in humans.
And Honolulu-based PanThera Biopharma has asked for permission to possess the dengue virus. If approved, PanThera would be at least the third organization in Hawai'i allowed to handle the virus, following UH and Hawaii Biotech. 'Aiea-based Hawaii Biotech maintains a stock of dengue virus and has a permit to import West Nile for research purposes.
UH, Hawaii Biotech and other entities with import permits typically are required to file an annual report to the state detailing the status and disposition of imported viruses. However, in three instances UH filed the annual reports several years late and only after an information request by The Advertiser.
UH's simian virus application and PanThera's dengue application are still pending at the state agriculture department. A public hearing on the requests by the Board of Agriculture is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday in the Plant Quarantine Conference Room at 1849 'Auiki St.
COULD SAVE LIVES
UH has conducted research on dengue and West Nile viruses at least since 2002. Records before 2002 were unavailable from the Department of Agriculture, which reviews the permits.
Other potentially disease-causing microbes allowed into Hawai'i by the state since 2002 include bovine tuberculosis, western equine encephalitis and rabies.
UH's work on such viruses as avian flu and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which is expected to begin this year, is aimed at improving ways to detect and prevent the spread of disease, said Duane Gubler, who heads the projects for the university's John A. Burns School of Medicine. Hawai'i needs local facilities and scientists able to identify diseases that can be carried by human hosts traveling to Hawai'i from Asia, he said.
"These viruses that can cause major global epidemics — basically they're going to originate in Asia and we here in Hawai'i need to be able to identify them," Gubler said. "The biggest benefit to Hawai'i is that it will help us to protect the people of Hawai'i."
The ability to identify the presence of dangerous and contagious diseases such as avian flu locally could save lives by allowing public health officials to more quickly prepare a response, Gubler said. However, at least in the case of avian flu, the presence of the disease here would have to be confirmed at a Mainland laboratory before any public announcement.
The laboratory at the UH medical school is drawing attention for its work related to viruses.
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week it is considering a partnership with the Burns School to monitor health threats in the Pacific and Asia. The CDC said part of the attraction is the UH medical school's secure laboratory, known as a biosafety level three, or BSL 3, laboratory, to study viruses.
The BSL 3 laboratory is used to work with microbes that can cause serious or lethal disease as a result of inhalation. UH's medical school facilities in Kaka'ako contain a newly built BSL 3 lab, and a second BSL 3 lab is planned for the site.
Critics of UH's virus research contend that the university should study dangerous viruses in Asia and other locations where they already are found, rather than risk damaging the image of Hawai'i as a clean and natural tourist destination.
'RISK IS VERY LOW'
Research into dangerous viruses has increased after the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and heightened concern about terrorism following Sept. 11.
But increased research also is causing backlash in some communities. Red flags are being raised in Boston, where opponents of a proposed $128 million biological research laboratory have filed a federal suit to block construction.
Similarly, a proposed $400 million bioterrorism research center near Columbia, Mo., has drawn opposition from neighbors over possible accidental exposure to agents such as anthrax and the facility's possible impact on surrounding property values.
And in 2005, the University of Washington withdrew plans to build a $60 million bioterrorism research lab after encountering fundraising problems in the wake of public opposition.
Public concerns about exposure to dangerous viruses are unwarranted, Gubler said.
"There's never been a release of an agent from one of these (BSL 3) laboratories into the community," he said. "If the laboratories are run properly and research is done right, the risk is very low.
"If we don't have these kinds of laboratories, I don't know what they expect us to do" to protect people from contagious, deadly diseases, Gubler added.
MISTAKES DO HAPPEN
Despite stringent laboratory safety practices, handling mistakes do occur. For example:
In addition to SARS and avian flu, UH has received state approval to import three unidentified restricted microorganisms including two human pathogens. Federal law allows the state to keep the identity of these organisms confidential, Gubler said. The unidentified viruses were brought into Hawai'i in November 2004 and were still here as of Jan. 22 of this year, according to UH records.
"These are the agents identified as potential bioterrorist threats," he said.
The public has the right to know what pathogens are being imported, especially if they're dangerous, said state Sen. Gordon Trimble, R-12th (Waikiki, Ala Moana, Downtown), who opposed importing the avian flu virus.
"That truly is frightening," he said. "They're saying it's something that's really dangerous, but we don't have to tell you what it is."
Trimble also raised the issue of the threat from a tsunami. Work on avian flu and SARS will be conducted at UH's new laboratory near the waterfront in Kaka'ako. While the risk of a tsunami is small, such research should not be conducted close to the ocean or Waikiki, Trimble said.
Trimble also has criticized UH for conducting such work in a laboratory that is on the ground floor, and for relying on power generators also at ground level.
"They've dismissed (a tsunami strike) ... as something that can't happen," he said. "I just think that common sense is not being exercised."
UH said a second planned BSL 3 laboratory for Kaka'ako will be built above ground and use generators also above ground. Work on pathogenic viruses such as avian flu would be moved into the above-ground laboratory once construction is complete in 2010 as planned, Gubler said.
FOR TRAINING, TOO
Work with potentially lethal viruses isn't limited to UH. Both the state Department of Health and Tripler Army Medical Center import various viruses to obtain certifications needed to remain in national bioterrorism preparedness programs.
In 2003, state lawmakers passed a law that allows both laboratories to import microorganisms without a public hearing or prior review and approval by the Department of Agriculture.
The laboratories still must notify the state before importing the microorganisms and must meet strict permit conditions. The agriculture department has yet to respond to an Advertiser request for copies of these notices.
State laboratories administrator Christian Whelen said health officials have imported rabies, bovine tuberculosis and other viruses to aid in identifying unidentified viruses detected in Hawai'i.
"We bring in known organisms so we can compare them to unknown organisms," he said.
In other cases, the viruses are imported as part of proficiency tests, Whelen said.
"Do I believe that the benefits of having these strains in the laboratory outweigh the risks, primarily to my laboratory workers? I say yes," he said. "They've got to have some of these viruses.
"It's a way to prepare my laboratory workers for the job that they need to do."
Reach Sean Hao at email@example.com.