The Peterborough Examiner

Wildlife groups not wild about Trent DNA plan 
Activist blasts focus on rabies research; project chief says work will be varied

By Steve Ladurantaye
Peterborough Examiner City Editor,
Friday, February 11, 2005. Page B3.
Photo Cutline: Denis Ferkany

Environmentalists have launched an attack on Trent University's planned DNA research facility, saying it will be a vacuum that sucks money away from other important initiatives.

"This is going to be a building built on economic quicksand," said Donna DuBreuil, president of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre. "The government has been duped to put money in, and that has to end. With a funding crisis in education and health care, you just can't put money into this kind of research."

In November, Trent's governing body approved the construction of a $19.5-million DNA research and teaching facility. As of then, $10.7 million of funding had been secured -- $2 million from the city and $3.7 million each from the federal and provincial innovation funds and $1.3 million from an Ontario rural initiatives initiative.

At the meeting the board discussed a business plan for the centre, which is also expected to include laboratories, office space, space for graduate students and a home for the Trent-Fleming bachelor of science and forensic science program.

Part of the business plan calls for rabies research to take place in the facility, something that has raised the ire of the Ontario Wildlife Coalition's spokeswoman Liz White. Her group is comprised of 80 environmental and animal welfare groups across the province.

"Raccoon rabies research is big business in Ontario," she said, saying only one person in North America has died of the disease in 50 years. "To put the virtually non-existent rabies risk in perspective, consider that 60 people die from lightning strikes and 40 or more die from hornet and wasp stings annually in the U.S."

The National Centre for Infectious Diseases states the number of human deaths from rabies has decreased to two per year in the 1990s from more than 100 a year in the early 1900s. The centre estimates that number to be as much as 100 times higher in some countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

It's those type of numbers that Denis Ferkany, who is leading the project at Trent, focuses on when he considers the facility's potential.

"There are countries where literally tens of thousands of people a year die of rabies," he said. "What we've done right here in our backyard has the potential to save lives."

DuBreuil isn't impressed with the international threat, saying those countries have more pressing needs and our governments have more local issues to worry about.

"Taxpayers of Ontario will be on the hook forever if this goes up," she said. "Rabies is a problem in countries in Asia and Africa and they have people dying of hunger and AIDS. (Rabies) is not even a big problem there."

The organizations are calling on the provincial government to reconsider its commitment to the project.

Ferkany doesn't discount the centre's interest in rabies research, but said it's important to realize there is more the centre than one area of study.

"I don't know these folks, but I look forward to speaking with them and understanding their concerns," Ferkany said.  "The DNA cluster is a far broader economic development and technical transfer opportunity. It transcends rabies, rabies is just a small part of the big picture."

Please visit The Peterborough Examiner website.