EXCLUSIVE: UH biolab accused of lax security

EXCLUSIVE: UH biolab accused of lax security
Published: Nov. 26, 2014 at 3:53 AM HST|Updated: Nov. 26, 2014 at 4:26 AM HST
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State Senator Sam Slom
State Senator Sam Slom

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A report by the Center for Disease Control found that lax security measures and a number of safety hazards at the University of Hawaii's biolab.

Hawaii News Now reported earlier this year that the CDC threatened to suspend the Kakaako lab after finding more than two dozen safety infractions.

We recently obtained a copy of the CDC's inspection report, which said that UH officials did not conduct simple criminal background checks for some lab workers and didn't have a procedure to report suspicious or criminal acts to federal and local law enforcement.

"Scary, people should be very concerned about this," said state Sen. Sam Slom, a member of a special state Senate Committee that investigates UH mismanagement.

"Here we are living in an era of biosecurity, bioterrorism and all that and I think the public just assumes the university has the proper expertise and all that."

Scientists at the John A. Burns School of Medicine conduct a research on a number of highly infectious diseases, including dengue fever, West Nile virus and the avian flu.

The research generates millions of dollars in federal grants and helps produce vaccines for a number of diseases.

But after a site inspection by four of its investigators in May, the Atlanta-based CDC cited the UH for 30 safety infractions.

In particular, the CDC noted that the UH did not have intrusion detection system inside the lab and did not have a system to coordinate with emergency responders in case dangerous viruses are released accidentally or by criminal act.

The report also faulted the UH for using defective equipment such as centrifuges with broken seals and for not fixing maintenance problems such cracks near sprinkler heads and unsealed ceiling access panels, which could cause pathogens to leak.

"The CDC has significant concerns whether UH Manoa can possess and use select agents and toxins in a manner which protects public health and safety," the report said.

Hawaii New Now initially requested a copy of the CDC report in May but school officials declined to release it, saying it would jeopardize the lab's security. We later obtained the report from other sources.

"We don't share any information with the public," said John Galland, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research Compliance.

But state Sen.Sam Slom said much of the UH problems are due to weak management and that the administration wants to cover that up.

In particular, the CDC report singled out Galland for "not ensuring compliance with the regulatory requirements ..."

"It's absolute stonewalling," said Slom.

"That's baloney."

After the CDC threatened to suspend the lab, the UH agreed to be placed on a performance improvement plan. Sources say that in the last six months, UH has been able to address many of the CDC's concerns.

But that plan is not yet complete and UH official must provide progress updates as often as twice a week.

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