USGS Inches Toward Accreditation of Wildlife Disease Lab
Independent Review to Prevent Biosafety and Animal Welfare Breakdowns
Washington, DC —The nation’s leading wildlife disease laboratory has committed to obtaining independent accreditation, according to a message sent to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) by U.S.Geological Survey (USGS) Director Applegate. The move marks major progress in ensuring biosafety and protecting the welfare of animal research subjects, the prime focus of independent inspection and accreditation in federal wildlife disease laboratories.
The National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) in Madison, Wisconsin, is one of the few labs in the country that experiments with the SARS-Covid virus in wildlife, as well as many other potent wildlife pathogens. Director Dr. David Applegate indicated in a recent email to PEER that USGS would to seek accreditation for NWHC from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. Agency records acknowledge PEER’s pressure as an impetus.
For the past five years, PEER has campaigned to secure independent accreditation for all three USGS wildlife disease labs. That campaign –
- Began with a 2017 PEER Scientific Integrity complaint against NWHC for animal care deficiencies and breaches of biosecurity. Internally, USGS decided that it should seek independent accreditation but lacked the funding to make needed improvements;
- Expanded after PEER revealed that the USGS Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle, Washington had discharged unfiltered pathogens, including nonnative virus strains, for six months into a wetland adjoining lake and public park; and
- Culminated when PEER led a coalition of conservation and animal welfare groups petitioning USGS to obtain accreditation for the Madison and Seattle labs, as well as its Leetown Science Center in Kearneysville, West Virginia.
“PEER welcomes Dr. Applegate’s announcement that USGS will finally seek independent accreditation for its Madison wildlife lab but USGS should ensure the highest biosafety and animal welfare standards for all its wildlife disease labs,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins. “There is no good reason to avoid independent accreditation for all three labs.”
Other federal agencies conducting animal research already subject themselves to independent accreditation, including the Centers for Disease Control, USDA, EPA, FDA, and the Defense Department. However, no USGS animal disease lab has yet done so.
Absent independent accreditation, the lab safeguards depends upon the discretion of facility managers and whether they have sufficient budgets to address breakdowns, provide needed equipment maintenance, and ensure adequate staffing. When scientists have raised concerns they often face retaliation by USGS managers, including one case currently being litigated by PEER.
“Biosafety and humane treatment of animal subjects in wildlife disease labs should not be discretionary,” added Jenkins, arguing that independent inspections and accreditation ensure that appropriate standards are not sacrificed for budgetary exigencies. “Maintaining accreditation also greatly lessens the need for USGS scientists to risk their careers by having to become whistleblowers in order to address biosafety and animal welfare breakdowns.”