Missing monkey in midst of debate over proposed biohazard lab

DAVIS, Calif. -- When a monkey slipped from its cage at a University of California medical research lab, handlers peered into sewers, poked behind cages and baited traps to try to catch it.

A week and a half later, though, all they've found in their search is an angry town armed with new ammunition against a proposed biodefense research center that the university says would study the world's deadliest diseases for the effort to protect the country from bioterrorism.

The monkey, a rhesus macaque, disappeared from the California National Primate Research Center, which would supply animals to the proposed Biosafety Level 4 lab to study diseases with no known cure, such as the Ebola and West Nile viruses.

Disease-free monkey

School officials promised that the runaway was disease-free -- the center currently raises animals for research on level two and three diseases, which have vaccines or treatments -- and would never have escaped from the proposed biodefense lab, which would have armed guards.

But that was little comfort to residents working to prevent the biodefense lab from being built. They learned about the disappearance Thursday, a week after the monkey got away.

"If they can't manage these monkeys when they've got level two and three diseases, how will they manage monkeys with level four diseases?" asked Joshua English.

The University of California, Davis, is one of about a half-dozen institutions across the country that applied this month to the National Institutes of Health for a grant to build the $200 million disease research lab.

The United States already has five high-containment disease laboratories and two others are being built or designed. UC Davis is competing against institutions in Texas, Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York to build another.

The proposed facility would have strict security.

Still, opponents fear a lab just 65 miles northeast of San Francisco could be a terrorism target or a rogue scientist could smuggle out a deadly pathogen.

Security level different

Dr. Dallas Hyde, director of the primate center, said he can understand why the incident has fed fears, but he said the security level of the primate center and the lab would be quite different.

"Animals that go in there don't come out alive," he said.

University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said critics are unfairly using the episode to target the university's grant application.

"People will make connections, but there truly is no connection," she said. "There's no scientific connection, there's no security connection, they're two completely different kinds of facilities."

Campus police are looking into the possibility that, after the monkey got out, one of the primate center's 278 employees stole the animal, valued at $5,000. Few other possibilities are left after days of searching the buildings and grounds that house 4,279 monkeys on 300 acres on the outskirts of the rural campus.

"It's certainly something that would be a disappointment and is, in my mind, highly unlikely, but it is something we need to consider," Hyde said of the possibility that the monkey was stolen.

The two-year-old female, which was to be used for breeding, escaped Feb. 13 while handlers were cleaning cages. It slipped behind a row of cages, and the employees reported a slurping sound as if it went down a small drain. Examinations of the plumbing with fiber-optic cameras turned up nothing.

In the center's 41-year history, 82 monkeys have found fleeting freedom but all were quickly captured or returned to their cages on their own, Lapin said.

The monkey's escape may not be the biggest setback for the lab.

Davis Mayor Susie Boyd announced Friday that she has reversed her position and will oppose the project because of the divisiveness it has stirred. She needs three votes to send a letter of opposition to the NIH and two councilors have publicly opposed the project.

The NIH, which will announce the grant winners in the fall, said it would consider community support in making its decision.


On the Net:

California Primate Center: http://www.crprc.ucdavis.edu

UC Davis: http://www.ucdavis.edu/

Lab opponents: http://www.simpalife.com/stopUCDBioLabNOW/contact.html

NIH Biodefense Research: http://www.niaid.nih.gov/biodefense/