Q-fever is an acute febrile disease which presents, as do so many infectious diseases, with “flu-like symptoms.” It isn’t cause by a flu virus, however, or any virus. It’s caused by a bacterium, Coxiella burnetii. It is class B biowarfare agent, meant to cause debilitating illness amongst its targets. It rarely causes death, although it can, on occasion. It can also linger as a fairly serious chronic disease. You get it from exposure to infected livestock or dried materials from infected livestock. It doesn’t take a lot of C. burnetii organisms to infect you. Typically the disease is seen in slaughter house workers and around slaughter houses. It is also being seen in US soldiers in Iraq, where some 30 cases have been diagnosed.
And oh, yes. We almost forgot. You can also get Q fever if you are a biodefense researcher at Texas A&M University. Surprised? Well that just happened. If by “just happened” you mean over a year ago. Maybe I should have said, the rest of us just found out about it:
Three Texas A&M University biodefense researchers were infected with the biological weapons agent Q Fever in 2006. The infections were confirmed in April of that year, but Texas A&M officials did not report them to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as required by law. Instead, Texas A&M officials covered the infections up until now, illegally failing to disclose them despite freedom of information requests dating back to October 2006. (The Sunshine Project, News Release)
The Texas A&M bioweapons lab seems to be an multi-organism offender. In April we posted on another accident that infected workers there with brucellosis. It turns out that was a full year after this one had occurred, so even as we were reporting that one, there was another. That would have been a good time to own up to both of them. But Texas A&M didn’t. And unlike some laboratory acquired infections where infection is unsuspected until long after the exposure occurs (e.g., the tularemia cases at Boston University a few years back), in this case there is evidence the lab knew something bad had happened:
What prompted the infected individuals to visit the hospital is not stated in the documents received by the Sunshine Project. Yet three individuals from the same lab visited the hospital at the same time and had the same tests for a very unusual pathogen performed. Circumstances strongly suggest a lab accident that led the researchers to suspect (correctly) that had become infected. According to the A&M records, upon learning of the infections, the main action of the biosafety officer was to report the accident to the co-chairs of the Texas A&M Institutional Biosafety Committee, who include Thomas Ficht, the professor responsible for the researcher who contracted Brucella in February 2006. But no mention of a Q Fever accident appears in Texas A&M’s biosafety committee meeting minutes.
There is practically no paper trail The Sunshine Project has been able to find, despite the fact that the university is required to file reports and document corrective action under both federal and Texas law. Failure to report is a violation of the Select Agent Act, the law allegedly designed to protect us from dangerous biodefense research. Since this is biodefense research the government wants to do, we’ll see if they do anything about using the Select Agent Act to protect us.
Meanwhile, the professor of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at Texas A&M in whose lab these infections occurred, teaches others at Texas A&M’s Center for Homeland Security, a Center funded by the US Department of Homeland Security. His biodefense research funding? From the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) and the NIH-funded Southwest Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, managed by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Galveston already has one BSL-4 laboratory and is building a second one. BSL-4 labs are the rare, extremely high containment laboratories designed to handle the most dangerous organisms, organisms for which there is no cure or vaccine.
Not that anything could happen to Galveston. You remember Galveston, don’t you? This Galveston:
Leaders of this fast-eroding barrier island — the scene of the deadliest hurricane in American history — are about to approve nearly 4,000 new homes and two midrise hotels despite geologists’ warnings that the massive development would sever a ridge that serves as the island’s natural storm shield.
Critics of the plans say that Galveston’s officials are ignoring the lessons of science and history in their pursuit of new tax money — and that in considering the building plan, the officials have ignored the very geological map the city commissioned to guide development on the island.
The three geologists who conducted the study cautioned against building along beaches that are likely to be erased by erosion within 20 years. They warned that artificial lakes and boat channels could help surging waters pierce the island during a major hurricane, possibly even splitting it in two.
About 8,000 people died then when a hurricane-fueled wall of water washed over Galveston, destroying what was Texas’ largest city and one of the leading mercantile centers in the South. The Great Storm, as it is known, remains the worst natural disaster in national history in terms of lives lost. (LA Times)