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?