Effect Measure

Biodefense labs: more of a bad thing

Oh, good. We’re going to have more high containment (BSL4) laboratories to handle the world’s most dangerous organisms, the ones for which there is no cure and usually no vaccine. Also bioweapons agents like anthrax and smallpox. Lovely. Where? We don’t know yet. The list of candidates was narrowed to five for $450 million in federal dollars for a national lab to replace the one in Plum Island, NY. The ones that didn’t make it are all states with a poor science infrastructure. You know, states like California, Oklahoma, Maryland, Missouri, Wisconsin and Kentucky/Tennessee. The ones that did? Well, Texas, for one. They’ve already got three BSL4 labs. They need another. Also Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi and North Carolina. Texas has real experience, of course. Texas A&M is the only place we know of that had two lab acquired infections with biowarfare agents last year (see here, here and here). But that kind of “expertise” is more common than we thought.

Far more accidents have happened in biodefense and other high containment labs in recent years than the public knows about. It is not clear if the federal government is even aware of the extent of the problems. The rash of biolab accidents is a result of the massive expansion of the biodefense program, which has brought research on bioweapons agents to scores of new labs in recent years.


  • In mid-2003, a University of New Mexico (UNM) researcher was jabbed with an anthrax-laden needle. The following year, another UNM researcher experienced a needle stick with an unidentifed (redacted) pathogenic agent that had been genetically engineered
  • At the Medical University of Ohio, in late 2004 a researcher was infected with Valley Fever (C. immitis), a BSL-3 biological weapons agent. The following summer (2005), a serious lab accident occurred that resulted in exposure of one or more workers to an aerosol of the same agent
  • In mid-2005, a lab worker at the University of Chicago punctured his or her skin with an infected instrument bearing a BSL-3 select agent. It was likely a needle contaminated with either anthrax or plague
  • In October and November of 2005, the University of California at Berkeley received dozens of samples of what it thought was a relatively harmless organism. In fact, the samples contained Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, classified as a BSL-3 bioweapons agents because of its transmission by aerosol. As a result, the samples were handled without adequate safety precautions, until the mistake was discovered. Unlike nearby Oakland Children’s Hospital, which previously experienced an anthrax mixup, UC Berkeley never told the community
  • In addition to lab-acquired infections and exposures, other types of dangerous problems have occurred, such as unauthorized research, equipment malfunction, and disregard for safety protocols

  • In February 2005 at the University of Iowa, researchers performed genetic engineering experiments with the select agent tularemia without permission. They included mixing genes from tularemia species and introducing antibiotic resistance. The University reported the incident to the National Institutes of Health, but public disclosure was (to our knowlege) never made
  • In September 2004 at the University of Illinois at Chicago, lab workers at a BSL-3 facility propped open doors of the lab and its anteroom, a major violation of safety procedeures. A alarm that should have sounded did not
  • In March 2005 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, lab workers were exposed to tuberculosis when the BSL-3 lab’s exhaust fan failed. Due to deficiences in the lab, a blower continued to operate, pushing disease-laden air out of a safety cabinet and into the room. An alarm, which would have warned of the problem, had been turned off. The lab had been inspected and approved by the US Army one month earlier
  • In December 2005 at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York City, three lab workers were exposed (converted) to tuberculosis following experiments in a BSL-3 lab. The experiments involved a Madison Aerosol Chamber, the same device used in the February 2006 experiments that resulted in the Texas A&M brucella case
  • In mid-2004, a steam valve from the biological waste treatment tanks failed at Building 41A on the NIH Campus in Bethesda, Maryland. The building houses BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs. Major damage was caused, and the building was closed for repairs (The Sunshine Project)

More biodefense labs with high containment. What could happen?


  1. #1 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 12, 2007

    The first “here” in the “see here, here and here” is not a hyperlink.

  2. #2 revere
    July 12, 2007

    Blake: Thanks. Fixed.

  3. #3 Nick
    July 12, 2007

    Not sure Plum Island is going away…via the Sunshine project.

    DHS has been posting bid documents for a $28 million upgrade to the island’s facilities (first mention here a few months ago). The specification states:

    “This project will establish a facility comprised of biocontainment laboratories at the BSL (biosafety) 2, 3, and 3Ag levels with the capability to conduct testing of aerosolized high hazard threat agents against animals, bench research and threat agents and bioforensics analysis.”

    Hmm… doesn’t sound like the kind of place that will be turned into a children’s museum or retirement home anytime soon.

    These are here, Section C may be of particular interest as it describes the work in detail:


  4. #4 Randice
    July 12, 2007

    An editorial that’s getting it! Fascinating!
    What’s more is the more dangerous/lethal strains that are being created dubbed “countermeasures”. A strain needs to be created before a countermeasure can be obtained, meaning that a violation of the treaty regarding biological weapons for offense purposes, is occurring. No wonder WMD’s cannot be found in Iraq – they are all here in the US.
    In addition, has anyone ever wondered what would happen if a natural disaster occurred in the place these labs operate? (tornado/hurricane, etc…)
    Who also knows who is hired to do what, with what…
    These labs threaten humanity, all at the expense of the taxpayer. (both with funds and lives).

  5. #5 M. Randolph Kruger
    July 12, 2007

    Randice-the going criteria for facilities is out there but you are right a simple hurricane, quake or storm can shred the daylights out of most structures. I begged for Tennessee not to participate in the process, but they did it anyway. They did it specifically on the assumption that it could be done safely. We know the true story on that.

    We are allowed to create treatments for chem-bio weapons but not create any more than we have. But to do that treatment testing you have to have live agents in most cases. Some of this stuff is the most wicked on the planet. We also know that the Ruskies have and have had weapons pilfered. They still for instance cant account for 14 suitcase bombs, and about 8 strategic nukes. They called it a “bookeeping error”.

    The answer? Build the facilities on an island surrounded by anti aircraft batteries, mine the beach and waters around it and above all have a tactical nuke based on the island to ensure an incineration if something happens. They wont do it though, there are no jobs in that case except for crazy people… Thats okay though, the bid process is being led by those types already.

  6. #6 Coin
    July 12, 2007

    The following year, another UNM researcher experienced a needle stick with an unidentifed (redacted) pathogenic agent that had been genetically engineered

    That may well be the most terrifying instance of the word “redacted” I’ve ever read in my life.

  7. #7 gilmore
    July 12, 2007

    M. Randolph Kruger wrote: Build the facilities on an island. . . They wont do it though, there are no jobs in that case except for crazy people…

    Raytheon does some .gov work on a Pacific island where they destroy nasty stuff. You are issued a hypo needle to jab yourself with if the alarm goes off. . . The per diem is great, but alas, I didn’t make it to that one. . . Not crazy enough.

  8. #8 Nathan
    March 4, 2010

    Great list Revere. Do you have an updated list of accidents and fined bringing us up to date?