Washington, DC, February 4, 2021 — As the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of scientific research on disease transmission from animals to humans, key federal laboratories are not up to the task due to frequent equipment failures and lack of independent oversight, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These breakdowns at high-level federal biosecurity labs have spread pathogens and endangered staff safety, while compromising animal welfare and the validity of experimental results.
Zoonotic diseases, like coronaviruses, are caused by germs that spread between animals and people. Researching animal diseases requires high levels of biocontainment to prevent releases of viruses and other pathogens. Unfortunately, the U.S. Geologic Survey’s (USGS) two main biosafety level (BSL) 2 and 3 labs suffer from crippling maintenance problems:
- This fall, the USGS Director stopped the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin from work using coronaviruses because of concerns over facility safety;
- The Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle, Washington discharged unfiltered pathogens, including nonnative virus strains, for six months into a wetland adjoining a major recreational lake and park. Employees also report biocontainment breaches in the Madison lab; and
- Employees are afraid to report breakdowns due to retribution. A Madison veterinarian who reported incidents was forced to retire. A 28-year research microbiologist, who supervised the aquatic BSL-3 Seattle lab, reported, and tried to resolve, wastewater and animal welfare problems; she was placed on administrative leave on January 29, 2020 with a proposed termination still looming, more than year later.
“USGS actively discourages its scientists from monitoring conditions and reporting biosafety problems,” stated PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who today filed suit seeking the records about the aborted Madison coronavirus research. “Secrecy surrounding biocontainment breaches makes repetition of these dangerous incidents in the future more, not less, likely.”
Research from the Seattle-based microbiologist, which is blocked from publication, demonstrates that aquatic viruses are making novel host species jumps. Her findings also indicate the same virus strains released during containment failures were lethal not only to fish but could also kill native amphibians in the wetland where contaminated wastewater was dumped.
“Although these USGS research centers need facility upgrades, they also need independent oversight,” added Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting his organization’s campaign to compel USGS labs to undergo third party accreditation, as most other federal labs already do. “We are in the midst of a global pandemic originating from an animal virus that jumped to humans, possibly from a laboratory release. This same deadly scenario must be prevented at our federal labs.”