Tulane Primate Research Center regains permit to work with dangerous biological agents _lowres

Advocate file photo by Richard Alan Hannon -- A rhesus macaques monkey stares out at a visitor from its cage at the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington in 2004.

Even though federal authorities suspended work on certain deadly toxins at the Tulane National Primate Research Center early last year, the center’s grant funding rose by 25 percent and research continued on a number of diseases, including HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

The center’s work with “select agents” — a group of toxins deemed by the federal government to pose a severe threat to public health and safety — was suspended in February after three rhesus macaque monkeys were euthanized because they showed signs of infection with Burkholderia pseudomallei, the bacterium that causes the disease melioidosis. Melioidosis can be fatal in humans if left untreated.

That suspension remains in place, said Andrew Lackner, director of the research center near Covington. But the center’s other work goes on, he said.

“In spite of all the Bp (Burkholderia pseudomallei) nonsense, we were up significantly,” he said of the center’s annual grant funding.

Between 2014 and 2015, grants awarded to researchers at the center rose from about $24 million to $30 million, the majority of which came in after the suspension had been put in place.

The biggest chunk — nearly 60 percent of the total grants received — funds the center’s work on HIV/AIDS, which includes an $8 million grant to fund operations, another $4.2 million from the National Institutes of Health to study ways to kill the virus when antiviral therapies are ineffective, and a $2 million grant to test new vaccines in nonhuman primates.

HIV/AIDS is not on the federal government’s list of select agents.

The center also received new grants to work on tuberculosis, which also is not considered a select agent.

And even with the work on some toxins suspended, some researchers had an opportunity to publish work they had done before the suspension, including what Lackner called a “big paper about a very effective ricin vaccine.” Ricin is a select agent.

Officials at the center are still working to get the suspension lifted, Lackner said.

A joint investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted several lapses in the center’s policies and procedures, including that researchers sometimes neglected to use protective gear.

Those lapses led to the euthanization of three monkeys that showed signs of the disease melioidosis. Another handful tested positive for exposure to the bacterium, though they never showed symptoms of the disease.

The 500-acre center — one of seven national primate research centers in the United States — is home to about 5,000 monkeys, the vast majority of which are rhesus macaques.

Jason McDonald, a spokesman for the CDC, said there has been “no change” in the Tulane facility’s status and that when the center indicates it is ready to resume work with select agents, the CDC and USDA will conduct a “reinspection” to determine if the problems have been corrected.

One key issue was addressed in August when former Harvard scientist Angela Birnbaum was hired as the center’s new biosafety director.

“We are clearly on the right track,” Lackner said.

But national pressures may be slowing down the process.

Biosafety at labs has been the focus of a lengthy national investigation by USA Today, which identified several lapses around the country.

In September, Secretary of the Army John McHugh ordered a safety review at all Department of Defense labs that handle select agents after incidents at several labs.

Lackner acknowledged that those events may be impacting the Covington center.

“I think that’s pretty clear. You can’t separate it,” he said. “The scrutiny has been quite intense and probably more intense than it would have been otherwise.”

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.