Biodefense research watchdog group disbands

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Feb 13, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The Sunshine Project, a nonprofit group that has monitored biological weapons developments and helped expose safety breaches at several US biodefense research facilities, announced on Feb 1 that it had ceased operations.

Edward Hammond, the project's director, who worked at the group's US office in Austin, Tex., said he shuttered the organization for financial reasons, according to a news report yesterday in Nature. "At some point you come to realize that if you don't have buy-in from the people whose business it is to fund peace and security nongovernmental organizations, then you have to recognize reality," he told Nature.

Established in 1999, the Sunshine Project investigated and reported on a number of biological and chemical weapons topics, including biological methods used to eradicate illicit crops such as opium and marijuana.

However, in the past few years the bulk of the Sunshine Project's work focused on biodefense research in the United States, which rapidly expanded after the Sep 11 terrorist attacks. Much of the increase in biodefense research has been funded by Project BioShield, a $5.6 billion program passed in 2004 to speed the development of drugs and vaccines to combat the effects of biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiologic agents.

The Sunshine Project had said it supported closer federal oversight of US biodefense labs, including legal reforms, mandatory accident reporting, and increased transparency

Hammond said he was surprised that the surge in biodefense work didn't spur more support for monitoring efforts such as his, according to a Feb 8 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "One would have expected that with the billions of dollars being poured into biodefense research, there would be something of a better operating environment for NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] like this," he told the Chronicle.

The Sunshine Project used freedom-of-information requests to expose accidents and safety violations at labs that conduct biodefense work. The group monitored laboratories by pressing universities to share minutes from institutional biosafety committees.

In June 2007, the group's revelations that some lab workers at Texas A&M University were infected with the category B bioterrorism agents Brucella and Coxiella burnetti prompted the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to suspend the university's work on select agents and toxins.

Three months later the Sunshine Project reported on biosafety lapses at three University of Texas labs in Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. A few weeks later the group charged that University of Wisconsin at Madison researchers worked on Ebola virus genetic material in a lab that lacked the required security measures.

Last October, Hammond testified at a US House of Representatives committee hearing on problems at the nation's biodefense labs. He said the Sunshine Project's goal was to bring more transparency and compliance to biosafety lab operations.

Hammond told legislators that the nation could do needed biodefense research more safely with one-fifth of the current biodefense lab capacity. "Our system can't absorb all of the labs coming online," he said.

Richard H. Ebright, professor of microbiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., told the Chronicle that the Sunshine Project's monitoring of biodefense research was sometimes more aggressive than the federal government's and credited the group for accomplishing a lot with a small budget.

"The end of their operations would create a vacuum. We'll go back to silence," Ebright said.

However, some experts quoted in previous CIDRAP News reports said that in certain instances—such as some of the infractions in University of Texas labs as well as the University of Wisconsin's work with Ebola genetic material—the Sunshine Project overstated the risks of the biodefense labs to the public.

A notice posted on the Sunshine Project Web site says the group's resources and archives will remain online but will not be updated.

See also:

Jul 3, 2007, CIDRAP News story "CDC suspends work at Texas A&M biodefense lab"

Sep 19, 2007, CIDRAP News story "Biosafety lapses reported at 3 more Texas labs"

Sep 25, 2007, CIDRAP News story "Wisconsin lab broke Ebola rules, watchdog group says"

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