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Nearly 400 Accidents with Dangerous Pathogens and Biotoxins Reported in U.S. Labs over 7 Years

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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working in biosafety level-4

At work in a biosafety level-4 lab. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectius Disease

A workplace accident might mean a paper cut or spilled coffee for many—or even loss of life or limb for others. For a select few scientists, however, a little slipup on the job could release a deadly virus or toxin into the environment.

Some 395 reported “potential release events” of “select agents” occurred in U.S. government laboratories between 2003 and 2009, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) reported. “Select agent” is government-speak for a biological agent or toxin that is considered to pose “a severe threat” to human, animal or plant health—or livestock and agricultural products. Special approval from the government is required to handle these agents and toxins, and that can only happen in specially equipped labs.

Not all labs, of course, are of the Contagion and Outbreak biosafety level-4 ilk that handle mega-killers such as Ebola and smallpox. But there are plenty of other organisms studied in government labs that can easily infect and sicken humans if an accidental release occurs.

Just what were these little incidents? Most (196) were an unspecified “loss of containment.” There were also 77 reported spills and 46 accidental needle sticks or other “sharps” injuries, according to unpublished data collected in 2010 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With all of these incidents, however, only seven lab-acquired infections were reported: four Brucella melitensis (which also infects cows and sheep), two Francisella tularensis (also known as rabbit fever, which is a class A, highly virulent bacterium) and one case of San Joaquin Valley Fever (Coccidioides, an infectious fungus).

These CDC mishaps are described as part of a National Research Council (NRC) review published earlier this month in preparation for assessing the risks of a proposed bio-research facility at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. (The CDC plans to publish a more detailed analysis of potential releases in early 2012, CIDRAP noted.)

The proposed Medical Countermeasures Test and Evaluation facility, which would be about 45 miles west of Baltimore and 50 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., includes plans to conduct primate and rodent research on the Ebola virus disease (EVD), along with Marburg virus (MARV), anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) and the bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis).

According to the NRC’s review, the current proposed risk-assessment strategies for the facility aren’t quite up to par and fail to consider “the full range of potential occupational exposures.” And because the plans for the facility itself have yet to be finalized, the review team cautioned that “differences in design have the potential to increase risk.”

Even before the new review was released, many residents in the area expressed “a great deal of concern” about the possibility of these pathogens coming to town, according to the NRC committee, which was led by Charles Haas, head of the civil, architectural and environmental engineering department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The U.S. Army, which runs the fort’s biodefense campus and is in charge of the $584-million project, explains that this sort of research is necessary to develop vaccines against bioterrorism attacks. “It fulfills the development process for medical countermeasures,” George Ludwig, principal assistant for research and technology at Fort Detrick, told The Frederick News last year. “The facility is designed to meet a broad national need.”

Before the groundbreaking—scheduled for 2014—the Army should take another look at its plans to keep workplace accidents at this facility to a minimum, the NRC team noted. Even the council acknowledged “the goal is not risk elimination but reduction of the risk to an acceptable and manageable level.” Nevertheless, given the pocked track record of other government “select agent” labs, the NRC committee concluded that the current plans are not “sufficiently robust to assist the Army in designing a facility that will reduce the risk from potential hazards.” And an accidental prick of the wrong needle there could certainly have more grave implications than even the most severe desktop stapler injury.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ASHIK 1:02 pm 10/3/2011

    It is really very dangerous job as a scientists to work in such a place.Mishandling of deadly pathogens and biotoxins can be life threatning.Even if there is a threat of accidental release of toxins into residential areas it is a risk worth taking.

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  2. 2. ironjustice 8:19 pm 10/3/2011

    One might wonder if this man’s job had anything to do with his son dying ?
    “Meningitis expert’s son killed by bug”
    “part of a team testing the Prevenar 13 vaccine at pharmaceutical firm Wyeth”

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  3. 3. focalist 7:16 am 10/4/2011

    I do believe this type of research is necessary- the 2001 Anthrax attacks were done with bacteria that were grown from a single small sample the guy stole. Plauge is still found in nature and could also be cultured. Tularemia also, I believe. Even natural mutation could turn a non-pathogen lethal. When these events happen, we have to know how to respond. An epidemic can go global in days.

    That being said, I do think locating such a facility in an extremely remote area only makes sense… obviously, cost should not be the worry when building such a thing. Placing the facility on an island provides a physical barrier to both wildlife and humans, and provides an unpopulated area (the water) if there is some type of release, reducing the chance of that release becoming an outbreak.

    Humans are all too fallible.. and these pathogens are not forgiving when it comes to teaching the species a lesson it’s learned a few times. Scary stuff.

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