University of Wisconsin-Madison research on the deadly Ebola virus was conducted for a year in a less-secure laboratory than required, until the National Institutes of Health alerted the school to the problem.
The deadly virus itself was never present in the laboratory, said Jan Klein, UW-Madison biological safety officer. Instead, DNA copies of the virus were being studied to better understand one of the world's most dangerous pathogens.
Klein said no one was ever at risk, though an infectious virus could have been produced if the research material had been combined with other components. "But that was not part of any planned experiment and would not be done by accident," she said.
The research was conducted there from 2005 until being halted in October 2006. Klein characterized the problem as a technical violation rather than a safety violation.
"NIH took a broader read of the guidelines than we were aware of and we were using," she said.
The researcher, Yoshi Kawaoka, a professor of virology in the School of Veterinary Medicine, said he immediately moved the research to a Canadian lab with higher security after the NIH said the UW-Madison laboratory was not secure enough for the research.
"We see this as a difference in interpretation" with the NIH, he said in an e-mail Thursday.
NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky said he was looking into the matter and had no immediate comment.
No known cure for disease
Ebola, transmitted through direct contact with body fluids of infected persons or primates, has no known cure, is highly contagious and kills within days by causing massive internal bleeding. Between 50 percent and 90 percent of the victims die, but among humans, the disease often burns out before spreading far.
First recognized in 1976, scientists do not know where the virus incubates between outbreaks — which so far have occurred only in Africa, apparently when people come into contact with infected apes or meat from wild animals.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 1,000 people have died of Ebola since the virus was identified. A major outbreak recently emerged in Congo; at least five Ebola deaths have been confirmed.
Kawaoka is a leading researcher on infectious diseases such as bird flu and Ebola. The university retained him last year by promising to build a $9 million research institute after he received a lucrative offer elsewhere.
The university approved Kawaoka's study initially for a Biosafety Level 3, Klein said. Several of UW-Madison's laboratories are Level 3 labs, but none are Level 4, where the most stringent guidelines to contain the most dangerous pathogens are applied.
Klein said Kawaoka was pressing to conduct the research in a less restrictive Level 2 lab. When the university asked the NIH for guidance, it learned the material was restricted to a Level 4 lab.
'I'm a bit scared'
A watchdog group said the case illustrates lax university and federal oversight of research involving potentially dangerous agents.
"The UW looked federal guidance in the face and ignored it," said Edward Hammond, director of the Austin, Texas-based Sunshine Project. "If the federal government isn't keeping careful tabs on Ebola labs, I'm a bit scared. I think others should be as well."
The group, which works to limit access to biological weapons agents, on Wednesday released documents related to the study that it obtained through an open records request.
The study now is being conducted with scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory, Public Health Agency of Canada. The lab there has Level 4 security and Kawaoka has worked with it previously, according to UW-Madison spokesman Terry Devitt.
Kawaoka said he remains committed to the research. "We want to understand why Ebola virus is so deadly so that we can develop counter measures to prevent humans from dying as a result of infection with this virus," he said.