The accidental shipment of thousands of samples of a dangerous flu strain that killed between 1 to 4 million people in 1957 and '58 shouldn't be seen in isolation. Deadly and sometimes infectious agents are accidentally and improperly being worked on and shipped around. And this is occuring more frequently because more labs and persons than ever before handle these agents due to a boom in biodefense funding. Compounding the problem are regulatory cracks such as the one the Washington Post pointed out today: "CDC spokesmen say...it has no mandate to monitor lab safety."
Although the mistakes are never excusable, the proliferating access to deadly agents might be understandable if massively expanded access was needed (note: the flu strain snafu doesn't seem to be related to biodefense, but shows how poor controls and widespread access increase the probability of accidents). However, Professor Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist, told POGO that most of the research and development process for antibiotics for biological weapons can be done without the bioweapon agents. Ebright said:
Initial research and development work on new classes of antibiotics can be performed with model microorganisms (and is, by far, fastest and most cost-effective when performed with model microorganisms). Only final testing requires access to bioweapons agents.
Here's a selected handful of recent incidents that stem from mistakes:
Los Alamos National Laboratory receives an unauthorized batch of "virulent" anthrax from Northern Arizona University.
The attorney for Texas Tech professor Thomas Butler tells the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that Butler personally imported plague in his airplane luggage "about 60 times over the past 30 years." Outbreaks of plague could have occurred. Vickie Sutton, director of Texas Tech's Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy, told CNN that, "The very reason that we have controls for these select agents is because there's a public health risk." Butler was also charged by federal authorities with falsely reporting that 30 vials of plague were missing, when, rather, Butler had actually destroyed them.
A guest Researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory improperly handles dead anthrax samples, among a slew of other related issues, a recent Energy Department Inspector General report concludes.
Three tuberculosis infections occur at a BSL-3 lab shared by Corixa Corporation and the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IRDI) in Seattle, Washington because of leaks from a "Madison" aerosol chamber (the chambers are sold by the University of Wisconsin-Madison). According to the Sunshine Project, a biodefense watchdog which publicly released this information today:
While tuberculosis is not a biological weapons agent, the accident underscores the inherent dangers when working with dangerous disease agents, and the grave safety risks of the US biodefense program, which is encouraging more scientists to deliberately aerosolize bioweapons agents in Madison chambers and similar equipment.
The State of Washington report examining the infections noted claims by the Madison chamber's inventor, Dr. David McMurray, a researcher at Texas A&M, that "the chamber was so safe that there was no need to even locate it in a BSL-3 environment", that it was "foolproof", and that "respirator use was not necessary." However,
The chamber operator told state investigators 'the Chamber seals deteriorate quickly, crack and last about a month' and in June 2004, well after the first problems were thought to be fixed, 'another big leak was recently found.' Another researcher said 'several seals of the Chamber were found to be cracked.'
Southern Research Institute in Frederick, MD mistakenly sends live anthrax bacteria to Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in Oakland, CA. The Oakland researchers thought they were handling dead anthrax until 49 mice injected with the microbe died, prompting tests which showed the strain was live. No researchers were reported infected. SRI had "verified" the anthrax sample was dead.
Three Boston University researchers become infected with an infectious strain of tularemia ("rabbit fever"). Two were infected in May, one in September. It was not until October that the connection between their illnesses and the tularemia was made. BU told city, state and federal health authorities about the infections in November. Besides violated procedures governing how tularemia should be handled, the Boston Globe reported that:
The scientists at BU believed that they were working with a strain of the germ that had been altered specifically for vaccine research so as not to cause illness. But a highly infectious strain of tularemia was mixed with the harmless variety. The source of the contamination is being investigated by federal health officials.
Samples of the deadly 1957 were sent to 6,000 labs in the United States and around the world. The mistake was discovered in late March 2005 by a Canadian lab tesing its sample.