The Galveston area of Texas that took a direct hit from Hurricane Ike is home to a top-level biodefense laboratory that studies highly contagious and deadly diseases including bird flu, but lab officials are assuring the public that the pathogens were secured before the storm made landfall.
The Robert E. Shope Laboratory is located in the Keiller Building on the sprawling University of Texas Medical Branch campus in Galveston. The basement of the Keiller Building flooded during the storm, but UTMB reports there was no loss of biocontainment or biosecurity. All labs were decontaminated and secured prior to the storm, with all infectious agents stored in proper containers, according to UTMB.
However, UTMB's statement contradicts claims by state and federal officials that the lab's pathogens were destroyed before Ike hit. For example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's spokesperson told CNN that the lab's pathogens were purposely destroyed before the staff evacuated the facility. Officials with the Department of Homeland Security also told the network dangerous materials were destroyed.
CNN reported on questions about the pathogen destruction claims raised by an unnamed former UTMB student who worked at the lab. She said she would be surprised if all of the pathogens had been destroyed, since some of them are rare and very valuable -- though she did note that the lab was designed to withstand hurricanes:
"I know that everyone at that facility, every single person at that facility, I'm certain has done everything they could possibly do to ensure that the community and the facility is absolutely safe, because all the people that work there, their livelihood and careers are dependent on the things that are held in that lab, and they would be destroyed -- just as much as the community would be destroyed -- if anything were to happen," she said.
But there have been security problems at the Shope lab before. In January of this year, for example, the lab was temporarily shut down after an internal security door failed twice. The door was in a lab holding mice that had been exposed to the deadly and highly contagious bird flu virus.
UTMB at Galveston is also the site of Galveston National Labs, a new top-level biosecurity facility. That lab, where construction is just wrapping up, suffered no readily apparent damage in the storm, according to UTMB.
Some observers question the wisdom of building top-level biolabs on a barrier island vulnerable to severe tropical storms and intense flooding. There are also questions about the cost to the public due to facility damage and canceled experiments.