Suspended UW researcher served On biosafety panel

A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was recently suspended for unauthorized experiments was also a member of the school’s biosafety commission, according to an Associated Press report released this week.

Officials with the university said last week that professor Gary Spitter’s lab privileges were suspended until 2013 for allowing graduate students to study genes of Brucella, a “highly regulated” bacteria with biothreat capabilities. According to the report, one of Splitter's lab workers was infected with brucellosis, a rare disease that causes fevers and headaches, but later recovered.

According to the AP report, Spitter served on the university’s biosafety commission from August 2003 to February 2005. Federal regulators estimated Spitter began violating safety rules and regulations at this time.

University officials recently settled alleged violations of federal regulations at a cost of $40,000.

Splitter's three-year appointment on the safety panel was “like having criminals run the parole board," Edward Hammond, the former director of the Sunshine Project, a research watchdog group, told the AP.

“That person cannot be trusted to competently assess safety protocols in other labs,” Hammond said.

The university’s biosafety commission is responsible for ensuring that potentially dangerous research takes place in secure facilities in compliance with federal regulations. The biosafety commission reviews and approves safety procedures during monthly meetings, according to the AP.

“His experiments could result in an influenza pandemic and they were reviewed by a man who - depending on which story you believe - either didn't know what was going on in his lab or who willfully disregarded safety rules,” Hammond told the AP.

Claudia Mickelson, an outside independent consultant hired after Splitter’s violations came to light, concluded the university’s biosafety commission “did not understand its responsibilities or complex federal regulations,” according to the AP report.