When the Hawaii Board of Agriculture voted unanimously to allow University of Hawaii researchers to study the Zika virus in hopes of creating a vaccine, the university issued a public statement announcing the decision.

Correction: An earlier version of this report stated that UH imported an Ebola virus. It did not, although it has been working on an Ebola vaccine.

UH issued similar announcements when it imported the dengue fever virus for research purposes. Tuberculosis, bird flu and various unnamed bacteria are among the other restricted microorganisms UH has imported, according to Board of Agriculture meeting minutes.

Hawaii has good reason to be doing Zika and dengue research. As a major travel destination in the middle of the Pacific, experts say the islands are more vulnerable than many states to the possibility of a mosquito-borne illness outbreak. And in the wake of the Big Island’s dengue fever breakout, experts with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proclaimed there were “critical deficiencies” at the state Department of Health that needed to “be urgently addressed” in the event of a dengue or Zika outbreak.

A biohazard sign at the Hawaii Department of Health Laboratory on Oahu warns scientists to proceed with caution.
A biohazard sign at the Hawaii Department of Health Laboratory on Oahu warns scientists to proceed with caution. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But it’s not always clear just what research is going on. In some cases, UH and other biolabs have refused to reveal what viruses they’ve imported for research purposes, pointing to national security concerns.

When USA Today published a series on biolab safety violations at U.S. universities in May 2015, UH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rejected some records requests, pointing to a 2002 bioterrorism law. The law allows the CDC to redact excerpts of lab inspection reports that talk about “site-specific” safety measures or transfer protocol.

In 2014, Hawaii News Now obtained a copy of a CDC inspection report that found 30 safety violations at UH.

UH is a participant in the Federal Select Agent Program, a CDC program that monitors facilities that possess “select agents,” or substances that could pose a serious public threat. USA Today reported that UH denied some records requests on the grounds that the university’s labs participate in that program.

Zika and dengue are not select agents, although samples are carefully regulated under federal law. Hence the university’s willingness to announce its work on the viruses.

When a Hawaii biolab wants to work with viruses like dengue or Zika, it must submit a restricted commodities permit to the state Department of Agriculture. These permits are discussed at Board of Agriculture meetings — a search of meeting minutes can turn up UH researchers requesting to import “restricted microorganisms” like tuberculosis in September 2015, the fungus alternaria brassicicola in October 2011, or strains of bird flu – also a select agent – in January 2007.

The Hawaii Department of Health lab also works with restricted commodities like dengue, corynebacterium diphtheriae (the cause of diphtheria) and tuberculosis, according to its website.

The Clinical Laboratories of Hawaii, Hawaii Biotech and Kaiser Permanente Moanalua Medical Center are some of the other companies that have submitted requests for permission to import restricted microorganisms, according to the meeting minutes.

Department of Health Microbiologist Becky Kanenaka demonstrates testing processes in a biosafety cabinet at a DOH lab.
Department of Health Microbiologist Becky Kanenaka demonstrates testing processes in a biosafety cabinet at a DOH lab. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest submitted a records request to obtain a 2014 CDC report on UH lab work, but the CDC refused to release the information. A lawsuit filed by the law center’s attorney, Brian Black, argued that the report, with whatever redactions necessary, should have been provided.

The suit stated that while the 2002 law protects security measures from public disclosure, “references to the general measures required by CDC regulations or biosafety restrictions” are permitted. It also referenced several UH website pages that mention research on select agents.

In reply to that complaint, the CDC lawyer claimed the government agency “properly withheld documents in this action” under the 2002 bioterrorism law.

On May 11, the CDC filed a motion for summary judgment and the case is awaiting a July hearing in U.S. District Court in Hawaii.

In January, UH declined to say what specific viruses are studied in the university’s biolabs, citing national security concerns.

Dr. Vivek Nerurkar, chair of the John A. Burns School of Medicine Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology, confirmed UH is working with select agents, but declined to identify them.

He said the agents can only be named with permission from the federal government.

As for Zika, Nerurkar said UH aims to import samples of a few different strains of the virus.

The big questions are why strains of the virus from Brazil have caused microcephaly, a birth defect that causes a baby’s skull to be abnormally small, and how the virus passes from mother to baby, he said.

“We would like to first see if we can try and attempt to develop a vaccine since we have expertise in-house of doing that,” Nerurkar said, referring to the privately owned vaccine research and development company Hawaii Biotech, which is working on vaccines for West Nile virus and dengue fever. “These things take time.”

John A Burns School of Medicine University of Hawaii. 6 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The John A. Burns School of Medicine paid $47.5 million to build the biosafety facility in Kakaako. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the past, UH has teamed up with Hawaii Biotech to work on a vaccine for Ebola. Earlier this year, Hawaii Biotech confirmed it was working on a Zika vaccine.

After a 2007 Zika outbreak in French Polynesia, Nerurkar became interested in researching a vaccine for the virus, since it seemed likely it could spread to Hawaii. He first applied for the permit from the Department of Agriculture in 2009, but at that time it did not move forward. Nerurkar said he was not given a reason.

On a scale of one to four, CDC awards labs a “biosafety level” based on the amount of safety measures and protection they have. BSL-4 means a lab can tolerate the most dangerous substances.

Scientists working with Zika must work in at least a BSL-2 lab. Nerurkar said his school’s BSL-2 labs will be used for research. It is also equipped with BSL-3 labs, which are used to study West Nile virus.

Correction: An earlier version of this report indicated that UH scrapped plans in 2013 to build a BSL-4 lab, but that is incorrect.

Nerurkar said UH lacks the resources to build a BSL-4 lab and there are no plans to do so.

To ensure Zika doesn’t pose a threat outside the lab, Nerurkar said researchers are taking a number of precautions, including shipping the virus in small, one-milliliter quantities.

All researchers handling Zika must complete training programs, use protective gear and work with small quantities. To minimize the chances anyone gets cut while working with the virus, glass equipment, which could break or be sharp, won’t be used. Biosafety cabinets, which are enclosed, ventilated, clean-air workspaces, will be used to contain the virus.

As far as security goes, “nobody can just walk in the lab, everything is access-controlled, like car keys,” he said.

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