French Biosafety Lab Chief Ousted

PARIS--Europe's most advanced high-security pathogen lab has claimed its first human casualty--and it hasn't even opened for business. On 28 June, the Marcel Mérieux Foundation, which funded the construction of the $8 million facility in Lyons, banned lab director Susan Fisher-Hoch from the premises and launched legal proceedings to dismiss her. Fisher-Hoch's most egregious offense, it appears, was speaking with the press.

The turmoil at the biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) facility comes in the wake of a takeover of the lab's scientific direction by the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The Mérieux Foundation teamed up with Pasteur after failing to convince funding bodies to finance the lab's estimated $1.4 million annual budget. In exchange for footing a still-undecided portion of the lab's bills, Pasteur insisted that one of its own scientists become director (Science, 30 June, p. 2298). That presented a problem, however, as Fisher-Hoch has a contract naming her director until February 2002. At the foundation's request, she says, she prepared a proposal for a new contract. Fisher-Hoch agreed to give up the directorship if she could run some of the lab's international relations and do research into a Lassa fever vaccine.

Fisher-Hoch claims she received "no reply at all" to the proposal before being "presented simply with an ultimatum to get out of the lab." Foundation Secretary-General Claude Lardy counters that she personally told Fisher-Hoch that the proposal was "completely unacceptable" because it gave her too much independence and authority.

Complicating matters, Fisher-Hoch has been in hot water over an incident earlier this year in which she allegedly stored potentially virus-infected blood samples in the lab before it was certified to hold them. Fisher-Hoch denies the allegation, saying that the samples were drawn from healthy doctors and nurses during a workshop in Liberia. Nevertheless, the primary grounds for Fisher-Hoch's dismissal, cited in a 28 June letter to her from the foundation, are that she spoke with journalists about the foundation's decision to replace her as director.

Fisher-Hoch has hired an attorney to help fight her dismissal. In the meantime, no one is about to suit up for the pathogen lab: Local officials have delayed the facility's opening, planned for this month, until whoever takes over presents bona fide credentials for running a BSL-4 facility.

Related sites
The Marcel Mérieux Foundation
The Pasteur Institute

Posted in Scientific Community, Europe