University of Hawaii imports deadly viruses
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By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Sean Hao
The University of Hawai'i has imported several potential bioterrorism agents, including three encephalitis-causing viruses.
These include Japanese B, Eastern equine and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, according to state records recently released to The Advertiser. The identities of the viruses were requested in January; however, the university opposed the disclosure on grounds that confidentiality was key to security efforts.
There are no current plans to conduct research on the viruses, which are being kept to aid in disease detection, said Duane Gubler, director of Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the UH medical school. The virus imports are part of a UH push to specialize in infectious disease detection and drug discovery via research on avian flu, dengue fever, the West Nile virus and SARS.
"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."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers Eastern equine and Venezuelan equine encephalitis as Category B — the second-highest priority — bioterror agents because they are moderately easy to spread and have moderate illness rates. Category A agents are considered the highest risk and include Ebola and anthrax.
Encephalitis is an enlargement of the brain that can result in neurological damage. Because of its high mortality rate — about one-third of cases — Eastern equine encephalitis is considered one of the most serious mosquito-borne diseases in the United States. In addition, there is no licensed vaccine or specific drug treatment for Eastern equine encephalitis, according to the CDC.
However, there's little risk to the public of exposure to UH's encephalitis-causing viruses because access to the bugs is tightly controlled, Gubler said. In addition, Eastern equine, Venezuelan equine and Japanese B encephalitis are mosquito-borne diseases, and Hawai'i isn't home to known carriers. However, more research would need to be conducted to determine whether Hawai'i's mosquitoes could transmit encephalitis, he said.
"The risk is very minimal, primarily because we're going to follow good laboratory practice here. 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."
UH has publicly acknowledged plans to import and conduct research on other microorganisms, including the dengue virus, Western equine encephalitis, West Nile virus and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Research could shorten the time it takes to detect the presence of a virus in the event of a local outbreak, according to UH. The university already has conducted research on dengue and West Nile viruses, and work on SARS and avian flu is expected to start later this year.
An increase in such research has raised concerns about risks to the health of Hawai'i residents and the state's $12 billion tourism trade should an accidental release occur.
Eastern equine, Japanese B and Venezuelan equine encephalitis are not present in Hawai'i, though the viruses can be found in Asia, Latin America and in the Eastern United States.
Maui physician Lorrin Pang, who has served as a World Health Organization consultant, agreed that the risk of accidental exposure to encephalitis from UH's viruses is relatively low. However, it's still possible for the bugs to escape the laboratory either through negligence or terrorism — risks that could be avoided altogether by not importing the viruses in the first place, he said.
"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 said. "If we ever needed it, we could send out (for it).
"Why are we going to call it in and have it just sit around, because there's mischief and maliciousness all the time."
UH applied for and received state permission to import the three encephalitis-causing bugs, along with numerous other viruses, during a Board of Agriculture board meeting in 2003.
At the time, all the virus identities were made public, though the meeting received little, if any, media attention. However, in January, the university asked the state Department of Agriculture not to disclose the identities of the Japanese B, Eastern equine and Venezuelan equine encephalitis viruses to The Advertiser, citing a relatively new federal law that prohibits federal agencies from disclosing such information.
UH, which is not a federal agency, argued that state laws should not force the university to disclose the three encephalitis virus identities.
Despite that opposition, the state recently disclosed the virus identities to The Advertiser because the names were publicly released during the 2003 board meeting.
In arguing to prevent disclosure, UH's Institutional Biosafety Committee, which implements policies governing virus research, felt that "these viruses could pose a significant risk to public safety if misappropriated or maliciously released and that they view protection of the virus identities as a material element of the university's security arrangements," according to a June 15 letter from UH to the state Office of Information Practices.
"All of these are natural bugs," Gubler acknowledged. "They're in nature, and if someone was serious about it, they could go get them. If you know anything about its epidemiology, you can go isolate it in nature."
However, the less the public knows about UH's viruses, the better, he said.
"Basically, out of sight, out of mind. If you don't talk about them, then people tend to forget about them.
"Any attempt to draw attention to them undermines that."
Debate over the risks and benefits of importing viruses is likely to continue as researchers seek to import more disease-causing organisms. UH this year sought and received permits to import avian flu and the simian virus, which has been investigated as a source of cancer in humans.
UH needs to clearly articulate when and why it will conduct virus work in secret, Pang said.
Microbiology professor James Douglas, who chairs UH's Institutional Biosafety Committee, did not return messages concerning the panel's decision to keep the virus identities secret.
"I want transparency on the principles" governing public disclosure of virus identities, Pang said. "I want to know from our (Institutional Biosafety Committee) with the endorsement of the (National Institutes of Health), when do you tell the public and when do you not? What are the reasons?
"Suppose they tie it to that — federal law — that says that we don't have to disclose. Then I'm going to say, 'Then don't bring them in.' "
Reach Sean Hao at email@example.com.