A Veterinary School researcher was severely sanctioned yesterday for "lapses of judgement" in an experiment that accidentally exposed students and staff to lambs carrying a leukemia-causing virus. The sanctions were handed down by Vet School Dean Edwin Andrews despite the fact that investigators ruled yesterday that no misconduct occurred in the experiment. In a three-page statement released yesterday, the researcher, Microbiology Professor Jorge Ferrer, called the decision unfair and said he plans to file a grievance. He said the school is not allowed to impose sanctions since investigators found no misconduct. But Provost Michael Aiken said yesterday that, although Ferrer is not found guilty of misconduct, the charges were not "unfounded" and sanctions can be imposed. In April, Ferrer failed to separate 14 lambs innoculated with the HTLV-1 virus, known to cause cancer, from the rest of a healthy flock at the University's New Bolton Center, located in Chester County. The investigative committee ruled yesterday, after a seven-and-a-half month investigation, that Ferrer was principally responsible for allowing the infected lambs back into the healthy flock, where about 30 New Bolton staff members and students and a group of about 100 preschoolers came into contact with them. The committee, made up of Vet School officials, found that while the preschoolers, staff and students were in no danger of contracting the disease from the incident, Ferrer was still guilty of "lapses of judgment and poor communication." Even though the committee found no violations, Vet School Dean Andrews decided that Ferrer should still be punished for his actions. The sanctions, which will continue until June 1992, prevent Ferrer from conducting animal research and from conducting or supervising studies of the leukemia-causing virus. In addition, Ferrer's laboratory will be monitored on a periodic, unannounced basis, and Ferrer must complete a course on the handling of biohazardous agents within the next two years. "The sanctions are a result of the lapse of judgement unrelated to misconduct," Andrews said yesterday. "It is not an issue of conduct, but an issue of judgement." Ferrer called the sanctions unfair and said that they will cripple his research. "Because of their nature, these punitive sanctions will most likely destroy a research program which, as judged by leading scientists in the field, has made fundamental contributions to leukemia and retro-virus research for more than 25 years," Ferrer said in the statement. Ferrer also noted that federal and private funds may be lost. Since the April incident, the University has tested all the students and staff involved. Officials also offered to test the preschoolers, and one family asked to have their child tested. All the tests were negative. Two sheep showed traces of the virus after undergoing follow-up tests in October, but later re-tests gave inconclusive results. The sheep will continue to be tested in the future. The HTLV-1 virus used in the research causes a relatively rare form of cancer. People infected may test positive for the virus, but only one in several hundred contract leukemia, which takes 20 to 30 years to develop. HTLV-1, which is related to the AIDS virus, can only be transmitted through sexual contact, blood transfusions, intravenous drug use and breast milk. The students and staff came into contact with the sheep only during routine procedures. "Back in June, we predicted that some of the sheep might have become infected," Medical School viral specialist James Hoxie said in the Vet School's release. "We do not consider that the people are now at any increased risk." Ferrer said in an interview yesterday that he believes he is not the only one at fault for the incident. "The Office of Environmental Health and Safety approved facilities that don't comply with safety levels in the [safety] guide distributed by the University to the faculty," said Ferrer yesterday. "The report of the preliminary investigation committee . . . refers to the fact that an independent error in judgement by another party also contributed to the problem." Ferrer also said since no misconduct was found, his reputation should be protected. "It is also clear that the University administration is entitled to impose sanctions only if the formal investigation committee finds the charges of misconduct," Ferrer said, citing the University's Procedures Concerning Misconduct in Research. The guide states: "If the report of the formal investigation committee finds the charges to be unfounded, the matter shall be dropped and the concerned parties shall be informed." It also says that "the dean and the Provost have the responsibility to take an active role to repair any damage done to the reputation of the respondent. . . " Even through University policy allows only three months for investigation -- and can receive an extension of four months -- Ferrer has been under investigation since June for an incident that occurred in April. But Andrews explained that the delay was caused by "a matter of having the right people in the right place at the right time to get the investigation done." Andrews added that the investigation took over seven months because the investigators were not on campus over summer break. According to Vice Provost for research Barry Cooperman, the University procedures concerning misconduct may soon be revised.Comments powered by Disqus
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