Contagious disease testing done inside Hawaii’s biolab

In the wake of the military accidentally shipping live anthrax to dozens of laboratories across the United States, KHON2 took a closer look at Hawaii’s biolabs.

The anthrax samples were not shipped to Hawaii, but the state does deal with dangerous pathogens.

“We do readiness testing such as Ebola preparedness, SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV),” said Dr. Christian Whelen, state laboratories division administrator for the Department of Health.

The DOH laboratory facility also performs regional bioterrorism testing, tests for pandemic and novel flu, identifies drug-resistant bacteria and viruses as well as many other types of testing.

“We are the designated facility to provide those testing services to our disease investigators and to the public,” said Whelen.

But how do these pathogens make it to Hawaii? Many of them are shipped. “FedEx does a lot,” said Whelen.

KHON2 wanted to know if these pathogens are the only items being sent in the shipments.

“Those packages do come on the regular trucks, go on the regular flights, so there is no special shipping,” said Whelen.

While the packages are sent with other mail, they are required to be triple-packed and leak-proof. The pathogens are also in an airtight container when sent.

So is there potential for these dangerous pathogens to get out if they are sent wrong?

“Anything is possible quite honestly, anything is possible,” said Whelen. “The levels of controls on monitoring these types of shipments is pretty tight.”

Whelen added that if something did happen where a shipment was not received, they would know almost immediately.

He says while the work can be dangerous, employees follow strict safety guidelines.

“When you see signage, when you see control measures, there are all designed to make sure the lab is safe and we conduct dangerous testing under controlled and safe conditions,” he said.

In addition to a long list of safety policies and requirements, the facility is under constant watch.

“We get inspected a bunch,” said Whelen. “We are inspected by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), by the (U.S. Department of Agriculture), by the (Food and Drug Administration), (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services), all for different regulated programs and also we conduct inspections.”

The state’s facility in Pearl City has been operating for 20 years.

The University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine also runs a biolab in Kakaako.

UH officials also stress safety as a top priority to their staff and say there has never been any incidents that would put the public in danger.

“I can’t stress enough that these are extremely safe facilities… but they are not safe enough. It is a road, not a destination, and so no matter how safe they are, the university personnel, state authorities, federal authorities will constantly be working to improve safety at all of these facilities and make sure never at any time is anybody lax at anything they do,” said University of Hawaii spokesperson Dan Meisenzahl.

The UH medical school’s biolab has worked with viruses like West Nile and malaria.

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