A series of high profile incidents — including the U.S. Army accidentally shipping live anthrax last year to laboratories across the country — have raised serious questions about biolab safety.

But that hasn’t stopped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from trying to keep information about possible safety violations at biolabs under wraps.

A lawsuit filed in Honolulu last week aims to peel back the secrecy surrounding top level biolabs. It challenges the CDCs interpretation of a 2002 federal law that allows withholding information that might put the public in danger.

“Congress put in place a balancing between open government and transparency and the secrecy that you need in order to keep all of us safe from bioterrorism,” said Brian Black, who filed the suit on behalf of The Civil Beat Law Center for Public Interest. “The CDC’s position is well beyond what Congress intended.”

The suit, which centers on access to a University of Hawaii biolab inspection report, comes in the wake of a USA Today investigation that revealed widespread safety issues and lax federal oversight of labs across the country. Some of the biolabs work with pathogens, such as Ebola, that could be used in biological weapons.

The USA Today investigation found that deadly pathogens, such as Ebola, can be found in many secret biolabs, yet the oversight is spotty.
The USA Today investigation found that deadly pathogens, such as Ebola, can be found in many secret biolabs, yet the oversight is spotty. Flickr: NIAID

At the University of Hawaii Manoa, CDC inspectors found more than two dozen safety infractions during a 2014 biolab inspection. 

The CDC and a number of universities — including UH Manoa — denied records requests by USA Today, citing a 2002 federal bioterrorism law. Recent work at UH Manoa labs has included studies on Ebola and botulism. USA Today has appealed UH Manoa’s decision to the Office of Information Practices

According to the suit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court in Honolulu, the 2002 law allows the CDC to redact information from inspection reports that could jeopardize public safety, such as site-specific security measures.

But when Black requested a copy of the 2014 UH Manoa inspection report, the CDC declined to release any portion of the report.

“By refusing to disclose redacted records, CDC violated the careful balance struck by Congress between transparency and security,” the suit argues.

The suit also points out that some of the information in the report that the CDC is declining to release is publicly available in federal databases.

“If our labs at the University of Hawaii or anywhere in the county are engaged in behavior that is dangerous in some way or that simply doesn’t comply with the law, people should be able to find out about that,” Black said.

According to USA Today, the CDC found numerous issues at UH, including “failures to implement suitability assessments of key lab staff, installing a security system but not making it operational, and having lab staff that didn’t understand how to use respiratory protection needed to prevent exposure to infectious agents.”

UH said it has since completed a federal performance improvement program, and had its CDC authorization to work with high level pathogens renewed through 2017.

Disclosure: The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.

Updated: Although the University of Hawaii is conducting research into Ebola, the university lab does not contain any samples of the live virus.

There are four different safety classifications for biolabs in the United States. The kinds of pathogens each lab can work with vary depending on its classification. UH’s biolab is classified as a BSL-3, the second highest level. Only BSL-4 labs can work with Ebola, and UH scientists are working with BSL-4 lab on the mainland to test their research on the virus.

UH declined to provide a list of what viruses its biolab does contain, once again citing national security concerns. Examples of the kinds of viruses a BSL-3 lab can work on include Yellow Fever and West Nile virus.

About the Author