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News ::
Davis California: Ebola in the Backyard (english)
27 Feb 2003
It seems that the folks in Davis, California are not all that excited about having a new Levil 4 high security infectious diseases laboratory placed on the campus of the University of California-Davis (UCD). Last night the city council approved a statement saying the lab is unwelcome. Davis council members unanimously approved a letter stating that the lab proposal has caused "divisions within our city" that likely will not be lessened by more information on the proposal. The letter, which will be sent to UCD Provost Virginia Hinshaw, the National Institutes of Health and area elected officials who have publicly supported the project, asks University of California and federal officials to find another location for the facility. Davis Mayor Susie Boyd announced last Friday that she had reversed her position and now opposes the project because of the divisiveness it has stirred.

UCD and several other institutions in the nation are competing for federal funds to build a $200 million biocontainment laboratory to study infectious diseases such as anthrax, plague, hantavirus and Ebola.

One concern of Davis residents is the potential for terrorism. Samantha McCarthy, a member of a Davis community group called Stop the UCD Biolab Now (SBN), says, "Post-9-11 terrorism makes not only the lab a target, but our population a target," she said. "This makes it inappropriate, even for those who believe it is an important undertaking."

There are also questions about the management expertise of the UC Regents. Those concerns are not without merit. UCD has a record of disregarding environmental laws. A few years ago UCD was cited for illegally burying radioactive Beagles and other radiological materials into a pit adjacent to Putah Creek, resulting in the designation of the site as a Superfund Site (LEHR site). Local environmental activists had to sue UCD to compel clean up of its landfill that polluted Putah Creek. In both these cases, UCD officials resisted complying with environmental laws and citizen suits were necessary to enforce the laws. Although environmental reviews are typically done before projects are funded the university doesn't plan to conduct an environmental review until it gets initial approval for the project.

A petition circulated by SBN states, "A disaster at this lab could devastate our town, our capital region, and our livestock and crops. History reveals that toxic containment facilities are inherently dangerous, and most increase the likelihood of injury and early death to nearby residents."

Graduate Students Against the War, a UCD group, is concerned that the lab will be used for the production of biological weapons despite the University’s assurance that it will not. The group cites the refusal of the Bush Administration to sign the recent protocols for the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) as an alarm bell. The group writes, "Indeed, as the Bush administration marches off to war; as it openly discusses developing and using new types of nuclear weapons; as it abrogates, disparages or refuses to sign international treaties or protocols — the BTWC protocol, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the anti-ballistic missile treaty, the international court of criminal justice treaty, the Kyoto accords on global warming; in short, as it openly proclaims its contempt for international law, we can simply assume that Davis’ biodefense center will be used for bioweapons research and development."

The debate ratcheted up earlier this month when a monkey escaped a University of California medical research lab and was never found. The monkey, a rhesus macaque, disappeared from the California National Primate Research Center, which would supply animals to the proposed U.S. Biosafety Level 4 lab to study diseases with no known cure, such as the Ebola and West Nile viruses. "If they can't manage these monkeys when they've got level two and three diseases, how will they manage monkeys with level four diseases?" asked Joshua English. Dr. Dallas Hyde, director of the primate center, said he could understand why the incident has fed fears, but he said the security level of the primate center and the lab would be quite different. "Animals that go in there don't come out alive," he said.

Despite all the opposition UCD will submit today an application to the National Institutes of Health to become one of two sites designated as new regional biosafety laboratories. UCD is one of a handful of institutions vying for the $200 million facility.

"If (the university goes) forward, we'll be in front of the bulldozers. We'll be marching," said former Davis Mayor Julie Partansky, an opponent of the lab.
Sources: Davis Enterprise, BioMedNet, The California Aggie (UC Davis), Stop The UCD BioLab NOW!!!, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento Bee, Globe News, SF Chronicle

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