Report cites UGA animal lab



ATHENS, Ga. -- Inspectors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted about a dozen deficiencies in a surprise inspection of the University of Georgia's troubled high-security Animal Health Research Center last month.

UGA officials characterized what the CDC found as minor.

Scientists use the high-security lab on Carlton Street near East Campus Road to do research on diseases that could pose a threat to human or animal health, such as SARS, tuberculosis and bird flu.

The research center opened in 2006, but only after it had been built, torn apart to fix various problems and rebuilt while the cost jumped from $21 million to $63 million. Researchers still can't do research with the dangerous disease agents in part of the building.

"Nothing terribly troubles me" about the CDC's list of deficiencies, Manley Kiser, the university's associate director of biosafety, told the UGA Biosafety Community Liaison Committee after the May 31 inspection.

UGA officials created the committee several years ago in an effort to make sure the community knew what was going on in the Animal Health Research Center and other high-security UGA labs.

Although UGA officials have not yet received a written summary of the CDC findings, CDC inspectors told university biosafety personnel that workers needed to keep better records in several areas, said Sheila Allen, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Inspectors also found what Allen termed a "brief, temporary airflow reversal in some labs," she said.

Rooms where researchers work with dangerous disease pathogens are designed so that air always flows into the rooms, so in case of an accident, a disease agent won't escape in air wafting out of a doorway.

UGA workers won't work with so-called "select agents" in those labs until the air-flow problems are corrected, Allen said. Select agents are pathogens or toxins with potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety.

The CDC inspectors also called on UGA to change the way workers decontaminate themselves when they leave labs, adopt an online safety training program and update or amplify some of its training, response and security plans, according to Allen's summary of the inspection.

"There's nothing we won't be able to address with paperwork," she said.

UGA biosafety officials will have two weeks to respond once they get a written report from the CDC, said Terry Hastings, director of research communications in the UGA office of the vice president for research.

Such unannounced inspections are now standard operating procedure for the CDC, Allen said.

Meanwhile, work continues on a series of projects that will open up a part of the building researchers have not been able to use for high-security research.

The Animal Health Research Center originally was scheduled to open in 1999, but state inspectors shut down the project in 2000 after finding serious construction flaws.

Eventually, workers came back and ripped out much of the faulty work, and a rebuilt AHRC opened in 2006.

Researchers have been using most of the building since then, but one critical part has remained closed - a first-floor area designed for researchers to work with dangerous disease agents using big animals such as cattle.

Six months ago, UGA officials said the university would have to spend $2.5 million for a series of upgrades before researchers could use the whole building.

By fixing some problems with changes in operating procedures instead of buying more equipment, building administrators and consultants have been able to reduce the total cost by $500,000 and maybe more, Allen said.

All but two of the building upgrades should be completed by June 30, 2012, she said. The last two are not critical and won't keep UGA researchers from using the large-animal part of the building for select agent research, she said.

"We haven't cut any corners," she said.



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