UW’s important influenza research conducted safely

July 2, 2014

The UW-Madison Influenza Research Institute (IRI) has been safely conducting important influenza research since its opening at Research Park in 2008. However, press accounts of the results of recent studies as well as a biosafety incident at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have brought IRI into the news.

Research like that conducted at the IRI has been deemed a priority by both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) as it is critical to the ability of public health officials to forecast, combat and potentially prevent the outbreak of pandemic disease. Wisconsin is home to some of the world’s leading influenza researchers and the ability to carry out their important work depends on the availability of state-of-the-art facilities like the IRI.

While the IRI has never experienced an event where public health or safety has been put at risk, some recent news accounts point to the possibility, however remote. UW-Madison takes accountability for the safe, secure and responsible conduct of all of its research with the utmost seriousness. While there is no such thing as zero risk, UW-Madison has invested considerable resources and effort toward making the research environment safe and secure. The university has and will continue to review and improve the many safeguards in place at the IRI and other labs on campus where pathogens are studied.

The IRI is a high-level biosafety facility designated Biosafety Level 3 Agriculture, the highest in the Level 3 category. It operates under conditions very different from most other Biosafety Level 3 labs and was constructed expressly for the influenza work performed there. Since its inception, and when the lab is not operating (during annual routine maintenance, for example), the university has opened the IRI to journalists, elected public officials and others to illustrate the safety features of the lab, explain the program of research, and to exhibit a level of transparency that exists in few other labs of this kind worldwide.

The IRI operates under significant oversight at the campus and federal levels, and multiple layers of security are in place. The lab is monitored continuously and inspected regularly, including unannounced inspections, by campus and federal officials. The university works closely with local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to ensure the integrity of the IRI's safety and security measures.

Studying pathogenic agents like influenza always carries risks, but this does not mean the work is not valuable or cannot be conducted responsibly and safely. We believe it can or we would not be doing such work on our campus. The management and eradication of many diseases would not have been possible without willing and responsible researchers to conduct such work.