P LIZICAL TELEASENCE Bugs in the System illustration by Mike Krone A s Hurricane Ike bore down on Texas last month, employees of the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston moved to secure a complex of laboratories contain ing some of the most dangerous germs on the planet, including Ebola, anthrax, and hantaviruses. Workers disinfected research spaces, destroyed active cultures, and locked the remaining bugs in freezers. Officials assured the public that all precautions had been taken to ensure that none of the labs’ dangerous contents could escape. The hurricane came and went with no Outbreak-style disaster, but the storm did leave UTMB’s labs without power for days, compromised the lab’s critical negative-pressure safety systems, and once again left critics scratching their heads over how a barrier island, occasionally battered by tropical cyclones, became a center of the post-9/11 boom in biodefense research. “To my knowledge this is the only BSL-4 that is situated in such an environmentally unstable area,” says Edward Hammond, a biodefense watchdog. UTMB-Galveston has ratories and eight BSL-3s. A third, much larger, BSL-4, part of the new Galveston National Laboratory, is slated to open in November. “Even if you believe in the biodefense program, you’ve got to be looking at [Ike] and saying, what … did we do building all this BSL-4 space in a place that you have to shut down once every year,” Hammond says. “There’s a huge scientific and economic price to that” The island’s biohazard facilities “came through with flying colors:’ said Dr. James LeDuc, deputy director of the Galveston National Laboratory. The buildings suffered only minor damage, and there were no security breaches, he says. Ike did, however, highlight serious flaws in the system. A small BSL-3 lab in the basement of the Keiller building was flooded, and sophisticated equipment was damaged. Putting that lab and others in the basement was a mistake, LeDuc says. They will likely be moved once the new facility opens. Ike also knocked out power and water to UTMB. That left the biohazard facilities without air conditioningthe campus relies on a chilled-water systemand dependent on backup diesel generators. But the generators failed as well, leaving all of the labs without poWeifor at least 36 hours, and in some cases a week or more. To maintain the ultra-low temperatures in the freezers storing its pathogens, UTMB had to rely on 40,000 pounds of dry ice delivered before the storm. UTMB’s labs also lost negative pressure, a safety feature that keeps pathogens from escaping, because of the power failure. “[A]11 the labs had been disinfected and all infectious waste destroyed so there was no risk of infection:’ LeDuc wrote in an e-mail describing the previously unreported system failures. But Hammond insists the incident was serious. He points out that when a new BSL-4 lab in Atlanta, which hadn’t been stocked with germs yet, lost power in a lightning strike, the incident was front-page news. “UTMB’s situation was much worse Hammond wrote in an e-mail. “They lost negative pressure for 36 hours in a lab holding one of the largest collections of incurable infectious diseases in the world:’ What about the storm next time? The building housing the new BSL-4 is engineered to resist winds of 140 miles per hour and a 25-foot storm surge, according to the EPA. A Category 5 storm, or a strong Category 4, could generate winds well in excess of 140 mph. The 1900 hurricane that nearly wiped Galveston off the map packed winds estimated at 135 mph. “It’s like a lot of things with these labs:’ Hammond says. “It’s low probability on any given day, but if it happened it could be catastrophic:’ Forrest Wilder Brimer’s Ballot Fiasco FORT WORTH STATE SEN. TRIES TO HANG ON Here’s a thought exercise: Imagine you’re running for reelection in a swing district against a well-funded, charismatic challenger. As the campaign goes on, the press has broken 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 17, 2008
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