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Katrina hits research labs

By Sarah Martin

Oct. 10, 2005 9:00 p.m.

After hurricane winds and rain threatened research facilities in
New Orleans, university-based health research laboratories had
dramatically different issues to deal with in the face of the
destruction than governmental biological labs.

When tumor research is being threatened because cell samples are
being lost, retaining power to the freezers is of the utmost
importance. But when dangerous and highly contagious biological
agents are the specimen, security and containment is much more of a
concern.

Tyler Curiel, chief of hematology and medical oncology at Tulane
University, hauled 400 pounds of liquid nitrogen to his labs to
preserve frozen fragile cell samples when power was knocked out to
the his laboratory refrigerators, according to Tulane
University’s Health Sciences Center press releases.

As water levels rose around her facilities, Claude Bouchard,
Louisiana State University’s Biomedical Research Center
director, worked to relocate tissue samples and data to preserve
research efforts on glaucoma and the development of new biomedical
materials intended to reduce health costs.

But Raoult Ratard, Louisiana’s chief epidemiologist, broke
into his evacuated governmental “hot lab” with bleach
in order to kill all living specimens from experiments on dangerous
germs.

“This is what had to be done,” Ratard said to an
Associated Press reporter.

Ratard’s team was able to collect their laboratory
computers with all their stored scientific data, but some
university researchers were not so lucky.

LSU scientists lost 8,000 lab animals being used in a range of
medical research. The National Cancer Institute surveyed facilities
in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama universities and found there
were 318 trials that had more than 7,000 patients registered who
might be affected by lost data and damaged hospital facilities.

LSU has temporarily moved its medical education program from New
Orleans to Port Allen’s dock in Baton Rouge. The Finnjet, a
705-foot-long ferry and passenger ship, has become home to more
than 1,000 students and faculty of LSU’s New Orleans medical,
nursing, dental, public health and allied health schools.

“We may see if there is some other hospital we can lease
to buy more time, but right now we have very few options,”
said LSU hospital system chief Don Smithburg to the university
board in a press release, after is was announced that the two LSU
hospitals which had been training grounds for doctors, nurses and
other health-care professionals have been declared devastated
beyond repair.

But the greater New Orleans area also houses several of the
United States’ governmentally funded infectious-disease and
biological-weapons research labs.

There were at least five level-3 biological labs in New Orleans
and nearby Covington. Biological agents being studied include
anthrax, HIV, SARS, West Nile and a genetically engineered mouse
pox, according to The Sunshine Project, a nonprofit organization
based in Germany that researches governmental funding
applications.

The National Primate Research Center, located at Tulane, housed
nearly 5,000 monkeys in outdoor cages for “infectious
disease, including biodefense-related work, gene therapy,
reproductive biology and neuroscience,” according to an
article in Tulane University Magazine.

But right after the storm, however, NPRC was quick to announce
no animals or biological agents were lost or released due to the
storm.

“The (center) at Tulane came through the storm just fine.
There were no injured or escaped animals and there was no release
of any biological agents due to other causes,” said Ann
Puderbaugh, a National Institutes of Health spokeswoman.

Efforts to secure these government-funded biological labs have
been expedited due to the federal rules regarding “the
procession, use, transfer of select agents and toxins” in
accordance with the USA Patriot Act and Public Health Security and
Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002.

So while medical schools scrambled to get their students placed
in other programs and began plans to rebuild, the Center for
Disease Control sent aid to the labs that work with “select
agents” which pose “severe threat to public health and
safety” as determined by government officials.

“We made an immediate outreach to all of these
laboratories. The reports back were that there had been little or
no damage. No loss of or release of any agent occurred and there is
currently security in place at all of our facilities,” said
CDC spokesman Von Roebuck about the Select Agent program to
“From the Wilderness” reporters, a biological weapons
media outlet.

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