mellicious: pink manicure (Default)
This is one of those things where I'm not sure if the article is publicly available, and so I'm posting it so you guys can see it. I know Col in particular has been interested in this.

Biosafety lab passes disaster test

Texas facility cleared to analyse lethal pathogens.

Rex Dalton

Galveston, Texas


On 11 November, US officials will dedicate a new research complex containing high-containment labs for deadly pathogens: the $175-million Galveston National Laboratory in Texas. Yet even as questions arise over the safety of other biosecurity research facilities, the cornerstone of the new complex survived its biggest test yet: Hurricane Ike, which devastated Galveston Island last month yet left the new biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab intact.

The Galveston lab is one of several BSL-4 facilities that have sprung up since the terrorist and anthrax attacks of 2001. Last week, the US Government Accountability Office released a scathing report on the security of the others. Two of the five current BSL-4 facilities, the report found, had security problems ranging from poor guard facilities to lax camera systems. Some members of Congress have called for the construction of new labs to be halted until such issues can be addressed. For now, the Galveston facility seems to be coming out the best — despite being located in a hurricane-prone zone.

Ike, which hit on 13 September, caused at least $700 million worth of damage — including $275 million in lost hospital revenues — to University of Texas facilities. That includes more than $400 million for clinical facilities at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), and at least $18 million for UTMB research labs. Lower-floor laboratories were flooded, and hundreds of animals had to be destroyed after auxiliary power systems failed.

But a sterling effort meant that staff moved dozens of freezers of samples to safety. No infectious agents were released, almost all frozen specimens were saved, and highly sensitive colonies of exotic animals were unharmed. For instance, the UTMB saved a colony of mosquitoes — Culex taeniopus, which transmits Venezuelan equine encephalitis to humans and horses — by rigging up a temporary fluctuating-light system to mimic sunrise and sunset for mating, says virologist Scott Weaver, the UTMB's vice chair of research.

Across Galveston Island, research facilities at Texas A&M University's marine centre also suffered after losing power. For example, the state laboratory that tests the popular Galveston Bay oysters for enteric pathogens lost a freezer of research samples. This is the final hurricane season that the A&M centre will spend in the 70-year-old building; a new facility with better back-up power is under construction.

Flooding, not winds, caused most of the damage in Galveston — as did Tropical Storm Allison at research facilities in Houston, 75 kilometres north of Galveston, in 2001. Accordingly, at the new national laboratory in Galveston, the bottom two floors are built of sealed concrete, and a back-up power system — with a dedicated natural-gas line for fuel — is located 11 metres above sea level. The new BSL-4 labs are on the top floors. Indeed, the new facility came in handy as staff rushed to fill its −80 °C freezers with research samples from elsewhere on campus before the storm hit. Other UTMB facilities, such as offices and wet labs, were built on lower, more vulnerable levels — mainly for cost reasons, says Stanley Lemon, director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity, the UTMB operation within the Galveston National Laboratory.

The university's current BSL-4 lab was safely positioned on the second floor of an older building. "We didn't lose the core," says Clarence Peters, the virologist who directs the UTMB's Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases. "If we had, it would be like starting all over again." Still, he jokes: "I thought I was going to have to snorkel into my office." Located in the basement, it was waist-deep in water by the time he got there.

The vulnerability of BSL-4 labs is a hot topic in America these days. A second BSL-4 lab is under construction at Boston University in Massachusetts; its location, in South Boston, has triggered complaints from neighbourhood residents who worry about containment. Galveston, by comparison, is far less densely populated, and its history as a centre of tropical-disease research is more ingrained in the community.

The new lab at Galveston will be inaugurated with a lecture by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, which funded two-thirds of the facility's cost. It is meant to be certified and ready for operations this autumn.

Meanwhile, the federal government is to select by the end of the year a site for the $450-million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, which will replace the Plum Island infectious-disease labs off New York. One of the five finalists is a low-rated site in Mississippi. It is inland, not immediately on the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast — but still is near the delta of the mighty Mississippi River.


mellicious: pink manicure (Christmas: snowflakes)
It's gotten warm - 70-ish in the daytime - which I don't like in the winter, because it usually means fog. I hate fog. I understand that this happens because when it's warm this time of year, the air is warmer than the water - and since we're completely surrounded by the damn water here, guess what happens. Today it was foggy in the morning, burned off for a while, then rolled back in after lunch. Ugh. I'm ready for a cold front. Not that we're supposed to have another one any time soon.

My boss went downstairs to get coffee this morning and came back saying they were having a press conference in the lobby. I think I mentioned the big donation UTMB got in the BP settlement when it was first announced, but apparently it became official today. The local paper did a good article yesterday about the work the burn unit does (warning: more info than you may want to know about burn treatments there), and that's where the money is going.

(Also, here is the 60 Minutes segment about the BP explosion. Which is pretty mind-blowing, and Incidentally, was also apparently Ed Bradley's last piece.)

Galveston basically has that amazing burn unit because there are industrial areas all around us, so there's lots of burn patients to learn on. Even out in the water, there are oil platforms, and patients get brought in pretty regularly from those by helicopter, I understand. On the land side, there's Texas City, and if you read the Galveston Daily News article, you saw that the burn unit was founded after the other Texas City explosion, a much bigger one over 50 years ago.

After we watched the 60 Minutes piece, I said, You know, I coulda told you the BP plant probably needed updating. It's right on Highway 146 so you drive right by it if you go to Texas City or anywhere further up Galveston Bay. That plant is old, it's very obvious. But we're all so used to seeing it we don't pay any attention, normally. And it refines, I seem to recall, a significant portion of all the oil sold in this country. Kinda scary, once you do think about it.

(I intended this entry to be about Galveston, and it got a little sidetracked. I'll talk about that another day.)

Holidailies gold
mellicious: pink manicure (Default)
I said some time ago that I was going to write about what's going on at work. I never did it, and I'm not sure I'm ready to now, but here's two links that will give you a good general idea of the state of things around here:

[note: I tried so you don't have to: the links no longer work.]

Lawmakers concerned about UTMB's direction

We're havin' some fun now.


mellicious: pink manicure (Default)

April 2019



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