EXCLUSIVE: Potential research loss from UH lab problems could reach $159K

EXCLUSIVE: Potential research loss from UH lab problems could reach $159K

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The University of Hawaii estimated it could potentially lose $159,000 in research grant money because of the prolonged closure of its trouble-plagued bio-safety lab at the John A. Burns School of Medicine in Kakaako.

The so-called "level three lab" is capable of dealing with diseases like dengue fever and tuberculosis.

UH officials said it was closed for "planned maintenance" June 17 and has not opened for more than four months since then because of numerous problems.

"I'm not particularly happy about the speed with which this is happening either, because people's research programs have been put on hold," said UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple, who oversees the lab, when he briefed UH Regents about the situation Oct. 18.

While medical school officials estimate the loss in grant money from postponed or canceled research projects to be $159,000 so far, they are hopeful the final numbers will be lower.

"If the investigators can do supplemental work to catch up on these delayed projects, this figure will be reduced. Further, the investigators have been working on alternative projects during the down time, also mitigating this expense," according to a statement from the medical school.

At that same time, sources said the amount of loses could increase if the lab remains closed for a longer period and if certain lucrative projects don't get under way because of the difficulties.

"The lab is not certified right now," said Apple, noting the lab is slowly working its way through a "rigorous" certification process, with many restrictions and requirements. "It's probably the reason that there's never been a single person injured outside of a BSL3 lab anywhere in the country, because they are incredibly rigorous, and we're not passing them right now."

On July 5, the UH spent about $11,000 to have its lab tested by consultant World BioHazTec, which found the lab failed several federal requirements.

One of the biggest problems: the lab's ventilation system wasn't preventing air from escaping out of the lab and some doors and other fixtures were not sealed properly.

"What has taken so long is that we don't have here the expertise for the reprogramming of those controllers. So they've brought someone from the mainland in just recently," said Apple.

The lab's exhaust fans have been serviced, new sprinklers and gaskets installed and other improvements made during the shutdown, UH officials said.

UH Med School officials said Friday they cannot estimate how much these repairs will cost or how long it will be before they're done and the lab can reopen.

"The costs for repairs and lab down time, while undesired, are warranted given the importance of ensuring the safety of those working" in the lab, the medical school statement said.

In the meantime, sources said Apple and other top UH officials who oversee the medical school and the lab are increasingly frustrated because they can't get clear answers either.

The three or four main investigators who use the facility are "getting a bit ansty about when it's going to come back up," said one source familiar with operations there.

When Hawaii News Now first reported lab problems on July 25, the UH estimated they would be repaired and the lab re-opened in about a month. Now, three months later, it's still closed.

In April the chief of facilities at the medical school left his job for a similar post at the new Cancer Research Center of Hawaii next door, and his replacement began work at the medical school later this summer, a transition that occurred while the center experienced all the problems, sources said.

At one point, part of the lab's ceiling caved in when officials tried to adjust the lab for pressure, sources said.

All these difficulties are happening as the UH decides whether to build a much larger bio-safety lab on top of a parking lot in Kalaeloa.

Construction of the $47.5 million facility would be paid for with $32.5 million in federal money approved in 2005 and another $15 million in state funds released by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in September. Apple said the UH must secure a 30-year $1-a-year lease from the National Guard for its site in Kalaeloa by December or it will lose the federal funds for the project. A final environmental assessment is due Nov. 8, Apple said.

Apple told the regents the new facility would have an annual operating deficit of about $2.2 million, a loss that would need to be covered by UH Manoa.

"That's really the reason why these labs tend to run in a deficit, because it's very expensive to make sure, and there's a lot of oversight and a lot of testing that goes on every year to keep these things functional," Apple said at the regents' meeting earlier this month. "There's a myth sometimes that research pays for itself. It does not. Even our most successful programs, we must invest in them continuously."

But regents raised concerns about the price of running the new lab, and feared that other UH Manoa operations would have to be cut to make up the predicted $2.2 million deficit.

"Anything that would have to be subsidized to the tune of $2 million a year, I mean, for the short term, you're right. It's an investment. But if it's a forever thing, it's going to have to come out of somebody's hide," said Regent Chuck Gee.

Apple said there is a chance the federal government will help subsidize the operations of the new facility, but nothing is guaranteed.

Regent John Holtzman said, "I understand why it's important but if it's that important, why aren't others jumping on board to help us fund the cost?"

At a community informational briefing about the new lab in July, people who live in the Kapolei area expressed concerns about the risks that would come with a lab built near their homes.

Apple told the regents he didn't feel "we've done the best job" dealing with the community.

"I think before we were of the idea that sending a bunch of scientists out there to sit in front of them and tell them how safe it is was the way to go and now we're doing a lot more of the one-on-one discussions by people who know the community," Apple said, with better results.

The State Health Department already has its own level-three bio-safety laboratory that handles diagnosis of infectious diseases, according to a health department spokeswoman. UH's Kakaako lab handles research and experiments.

Copyright 2012 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.