Cynics Blog Post

Harvey hits Galveston: Level 4 Bio Labs Have Containment Threatened

Galveston Island, which has been in the path of Hurricane Harvey, being deluged by meters of rainfall and flooding as well as evacuations, is home to several Level 4 Biologic Research Laboratories. These labs contain especially threatening disease microbes, such as Ebola, Marburg, resistant tuberculosis, emerging flu viruses, and so forth. Research in labs includes research involving treatments for these reemerging and resistant diseases, vaccinations for such diseases, research into the disease process using animal test subjects. Some of these diseases could be used for bio-warfare, by any nation-state or by a terrorist organization. This probably will happen, eventually, and we must be ready to defend ourselves against weaponized versions of these and other diseases - whether they've been deemed extinct, such as smallpox, or a brand new disease - which can occur naturally or be developed for the purpose of warfare or terror.

The problem which has come up since Hurricane Harvey hit is that these areas have been without a power source. Indeed, there are generators. Generators need fuel - gasoline or diesel. This power outage has so-far lasted days, and weeks are possible. The generators are in danger of running out of fuel. Moreover, the island has been evacuated, the availability of fuel is quite questionable, and no one is allowed back on the island. This includes maintenance personnel for these laboratory facilities. It is unclear whether emergency workers have access to refuel these facilities, or know where they are or that they urgently need service.

There is a question of how the animals being used in this research are being cared for, whether they are safe and secure. Should they flood and die, or merely die of starvation or even thirst, their dead bodies, which will end up floating in water, will likely release whatever pathogen(s) they are infected with. If it can be airborne or waterborne, without negative-pressure containment, it will get out. The weather in the area is warm and wet - ideal for the spread of most pathogens - especially those of tropical or subtropical origin, such as Marburg or Ebola. Even if humans do not get off the island, there are birds and insects which can fly and get off the island to populated areas

The weather in Galveston is very warm and wet. This is ideal for many disease organisms to grow and spread. That is especially true for those of tropical or subtropical origin.

Moreover, as has been well-documented, and I've written on this site in the past, gene sequences in single-celled microbes which help their survivability - including treatment-resistance, is easily transferred between species/types of microbes. For instance, it would be easy for an emerging disease-causing bacteria to exchange gene-sequences with another disease-causing bacteria, for instance MRSA, for it to gain antibiotic resistance. If it can gather some traits from a virulent flu virus - or give other attributes to that flu virus, both are then better for infecting hosts - in new and novel ways. There are not one or two, but MANY pathogens in these Level-4 labs, plus MRSA and resistant tuberculosis in the environment.


Why Put Such Labs in Galveston?

It's not like Galveston has not been hit by a major hurricane before, which essentially leveled or badly crippled the island. This has happened many times in the past.

It appears that there is more acceptance for putting more hazards in the path of future hurricanes in south Texas than in many other places. California, being in an earthquake-zone, has a few of these labs. Earthquake-resistance in the building has been well tested. However, they too, have an acceptance for putting dangerous things in the path of natural hazards, in their case, earthquakes. That appears to be human nature. "We" can handle this hazard. We've done so in the past. These disasters don't happen very often.

There is a need to be able to get experts to and from the lab, and to have them in areas where the appropriate scientists want to live. Some of the labs are owned and operated by universities, and the university professors, students, and employees will wish to get to and from the lab readily for their studies. Then again, at least one of these labs is owned by a private non-profit organization, which brings up the question of how well it adheres to standards.


Which Agencies Regulate these Labs?

Many of them. Not only are they covered under regulations of numerous "3-letter government agencies", including the EPA, OSHA, various departments of health, but the existence of such lab is permitted under the charters of various agencies. Thus, even something as simple as a listing of what Bio-labs at which level does not exist in a single place, but in numerous lists. It would be a monumental task to create such a list for a single region or state.

Of course, there is a need to obfuscate some of the laboratories, especially those operated under the DOD or any run under the CIA or other clandestine organizations for the purpose of national security, and to not make it an easy target for a terrorist or foreign clandestine organization. Having such information hidden from plain sight from those who are charged with public safety, especially during a natural disaster, appears to be unwise - especially when it's in a densely-populated area.


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