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UW–Madison responds to USA Today opinion piece about lab safety

April 12, 2023 By Steven A. Ackerman

Steve Ackerman is Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at UW–Madison.

(Note: UW–Madison has been engaged in ongoing discussion with members of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation since the USA Today opinion piece published on April 11, 2023. Find more information about an April 25 letter from Wisconsin’s Republican Congressional delegation to the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and the directors of the CDC and NIH.)

In a USA Today opinion piece published on April 11, 2023, featuring an excerpt from a forthcoming book, author Alison Young broadly and harmfully asserts wrongdoing on the part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison that is not rooted in the facts, including those provided to her by the university and in public documents in her possession.

Young focuses on two biosafety incidents that took place in the laboratory of Yoshihiro Kawaoka in 2013 and 2019. She uses them to mischaracterize and distort the university’s handling of research involving pathogens, its efforts to mitigate risk and its compliance with research oversight requirements. The opinion piece also cherry-picks information to paint an inaccurate picture of what took place and obscures the full scope of communications between the university and federal agencies.

The outcome is a story that irresponsibly sensationalizes a topic of immense public concern in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It targets a lab with a stellar safety record and history of strong accountability, and it seeks to undermine critical research performed for societal benefit, including the development of drugs and treatments for some of the world’s most intractable infectious diseases.

Here are the actual facts about each incident that the reporter omitted, distorted or otherwise mischaracterized:

2013 needle stick

  • A researcher working with influenza virus accidentally stuck themselves with a needle while working in the lab in December 2013.
  • The university, following its reporting obligations, shared the incident with federal agencies and followed its protocols for managing a low-risk exposure. The lab’s exposure control plan, based on National Institutes of Health guidelines, defined the incident as low-risk because it did not involve mucosal (such as eyes or nose) or respiratory exposure.
  • Because it was a low-risk exposure, the researcher was instructed to quarantine at home, which was approved by the NIH.
  • During its review, the NIH noted a discrepancy in the lab’s plans for quarantine in the event of a high-risk exposure and, as a result, the university corrected its plans. These communications were straightforward and reflect clarifying correspondence between the university and the NIH.

2019 PAPR (personal air purifying respirator) disconnection

  • On Dec. 9, 2019, a researcher in training was observing two senior scientists during the process of collecting nasal samples from ferrets involved in a transmission experiment of H5N1 avian influenza virus.
  • Between two sample collections —when all ferrets were in HEPA-filtered containment cages, the biosafety cabinet had been decontaminated and Tyvek sleeves and outer gloves had been disinfected and changed — the observing researcher and one of the senior scientists noticed the observing researcher’s PAPR hose become detached from its base.
  • The hose was disconnected for a matter of seconds and was immediately reconnected.
  • The researchers followed the lab’s emergency response procedure, which included immediately informing the UW–Madison Responsible Official (RO), who then notified the Federal Select Agent Program and the university’s Biological Safety Officer (BSO).
  • The researcher-in-training followed the lab’s quarantine procedure while the RO and BSO gathered the facts of what took place.
  • At the time of the momentary hose disconnection, the infectious agent was stored away, infected animals were in HEPA-filtered containment cages, the biosafety cabinet where the sample collection took place had been disinfected and Tyvek sleeves and outer gloves had been disinfected and changed. The detachment was also so brief that the researcher would have continued to breathe the filtered air still present in their PAPR.
  • The RO and BSO determined the incident was not an exposure or potential exposure under NIH criteria, and program medical providers (experts in infectious disease) provided medical clearance. As a result, it was not immediately reported to the NIH Office of Science Policy (NIH-OSP).
  • The lab immediately reported the incident to the Federal Select Agent Program and within days, Professor Kawaoka voluntarily shared the incident with his program officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and provided a summary to the Health and Human Services P3CO Committee.
  • The lab and representatives from the UW–Madison Office of Biological Safety also took part in a series of meetings with NIH-OSP in the ensuing weeks, portrayed inaccurately by the reporter as a delay. Ultimately, the university was asked to file an incident report to NIH-OSP and did so on Feb. 10, 2020.
  • In response to the report, UW–Madison received an email from NIH-OSP on March 27, 2020 that said, “the actions taken in response to this incident appear appropriate.” There was no further communication from NIH-OSP to the university about its approach to the incident.
  • The RO also informed the chair of the Institutional Biosafety Committee immediately following the incident. The chair brought the incident to the February meeting.

In her opinion piece, the reporter uses words and phrases designed to mislead and leaves out key details that informed the university’s decision-making, all of which are available in the documents the reporter possessed and in responses from the university, consisting of many pages of written correspondence. It is simply untrue that the university provided little information in response to her questions.

Young also claims the university attempted to avoid providing timely or adequate information about the incident to federal regulators even as the record she draws upon shows university officials communicated early and regularly with their federal counterparts beyond what was required.

Kawaoka’s lab, the Influenza Research Institute, is one of the most public research labs of its kind in the world, offering tours during its annual maintenance period to journalists, elected officials, public health officials, law enforcement officers and emergency responders. UW–Madison values transparency. The university regularly shares stories about the lab’s research, as we are proud of this important work and its societal benefits. It’s an extreme distortion to call its work anything but open and publicly available.

The university has developed a new website, which serves as an informational resource and record repository for research of this kind on campus. Ultimately, these practices show the university does not hide or downplay incidents in its research labs, but rather is a leader in safe and transparent pathogen research.