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Biomedical Science Tower 3. Photo: University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research Facebook

A former University of Pittsburgh professor has filed a whistleblower suit against the school, alleging she experienced retaliation after pushing the laboratory to report the escape of two infected animals in 2016, according to multiple reports.

Kelly Stefano Cole was associate director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory at Pitt, and her page is still active on the school’s website.

But in the suit, Stefano Cole alleges she was retaliated and eventually fired for reporting two incidents at the RBL, which is a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) facility. As such, it is certified by the National Institutes of Health to work potential lethal airborne diseases and other deadly germs, such as yellow fever, West Nile virus, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. 

Stefano Cole claims she learned that a monkey infected with a “select agent” escaped its cage for several hours in January 2016, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Stefano Cole questioned the university about the incident, and its official report of the incident – which downplayed the length of time the monkey was free, and classified it as an accident rather than an “exposure” incident, according to the account.

A second incident in June 2016 involved the escape of an infected rabbit from its cage, according to the newspaper. But no official report was filed this time, and despite her stated concerned, Stefano Cole contends she was instructed once again to not report the incidents to the NIH.

The lawsuit does not specify what “select agents” had infected the animals. The Pitt facility is one of 13 NIH-funded labs of its type, and is focused on new vaccines and therapeutics for emerging pathogens.

After the two incidents, she was disciplined several times for sign-in violations, inappropriate clothing in the laboratory, and paperwork errors. Other employees were not cited for the same behaviors, she alleges in the suit.

Stefano Cole was suspended in August 2016, and then completed retraining and orientation process – but was not reinstated to the lab. Her contract was not renewed shortly thereafter, they said.

The Select Agent Program has been under the microscope for several years. Most recently, a Government Accountability Office report from this past October concluded the oversight of the most dangerous germs in hundreds of laboratories nationwide was falling short.

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