MONKEY'S ESCAPE MAY SINK BIODEFENSE LAB
27 Feb 2003
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, February 24, 2003
Monkey's escape may sink biodefense lab
Opponents of proposed UC Davis facility go ape over security breach
Elizabeth Fernandez, Chronicle Staff Writer
The escape of a small gray and tan monkey from a UC Davis medical research center may threaten a proposed high-security lab on campus to study deadly infectious organisms such as anthrax and smallpox that could be used as terrorist weapons.
The 4-pound rhesus macaque monkey vanished two weeks ago as her cage was being cleaned at the California National Primate Research Center, where she was used for breeding purposes and was "disease free," according to the university.
But the primate's disappearance is raising grave concerns among the many opponents of a proposed $150 million biocontainment facility that would be entrusted to study the world's most dangerous diseases.
"A lot of people are anxious about security and the university's ability to operate a lab with such high security needs," said Davis City Councilwoman Sue Greenwald. "This doesn't reassure citizens who have the perception that the proposed facility cannot be failsafe."
On Wednesday, the City Council will vote on a letter, drafted by Mayor Susie Boyd, formally telling UC Davis officials that city government opposes the facility.
The Davis campus is among several institutions in the country that applied this month to the National Institutes of Health for the funds to build the National Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases.
The facility would be the only Biosafety Level 4 lab on the West Coast, and it would house such highly infectious and deadly organisms as anthrax, smallpox, the Ebola virus and the plague. Monkeys for the Level 4 lab would be supplied by the California National Primate Research Center -- from which the monkey escaped.
The research center currently supplies monkeys to other UC campuses for Level 2 and 3 research such as cancer, asthma and AIDS, and it is one of eight centers nationwide supported by the NIH to conduct medical research.
Opposition to the proposed Level 4 facility from Davis city government cannot, by itself, stop UC from getting the lab, but NIH has said community input will be a factor in selecting a site.
Boyd says the disappearance of the monkey, which has been on the lam since Feb. 13, played no role in her decision to ask the council to vote against the lab.
The 2-year-old monkey stands 20 inches high and is valued at $5,000. It was kept in an indoor cage for breeding purposes with a "disease-free" group of animals at the research center, said UC Davis spokeswoman Maril Stratton. More than 4,200 monkeys live in the primate center, Stratton said.
ESCAPE TRIES NOT UNUSUAL
Every year, several monkeys make a break from their outdoor enclosures but are found within the confines of the center itself, Stratton said. She said indoor escapes have been rare and the last one happened 30 years ago. That monkey was quickly found and tighter security imposed.
The university is investigating the possible theft of the monkey -- officials said she could not have slipped off campus on her own. They have searched for her in vain, scouring sewers, baiting traps.
The university has said that security would be much more stringent at the proposed Level 4 lab and that no monkey would escape from the facility, which would have armed guards. Nonetheless, many community members are capitalizing on the AWOL primate to raise alarm about the project.
"They can't even handle security to keep a monkey in," says Samantha McCarthy, a member of the newly formed Stop UCD BioLab NOW. "They didn't even tell the public about the monkey's disappearance for a week. . . . It's a security breach regardless of how it disappeared.
"It's all so ridiculous -- we have monkeys escaping, we have faculty members and the community up in arms."
UC Davis' proposal has been endorsed by numerous politicians and agencies, including the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and the public health directors of California's 58 counties.
OPPOSITION ON THE RISE
Earlier this month, the Davis City Council sent a "neutral" letter to the NIH, saying it needed additional information and public outreach before voting on the proposal.
Particularly in Davis, public opposition has been increasingly thunderous. Boyd says letters and phone calls to her are running 50-1 against the project.
"While I personally still support it . . . I have to put aside my personal point of view," she says. "I knew it would be controversial, but I believed the support would be stronger. I have not seen an issue that was so overwhelmingly opposed in my 13 years on the council."