Biodefense laboratories at Texas universities operated for years without a single reported incident of laboratory acquired infection or even exposure. That is absolutely true and it sounds reassuring and it is similar to biodefense laboratores elsewhere. Don’t worry. Be happy. But when it comes to claims of safety in biodefense laboratories — multiplying like mosquitoes after the Bush administration rained dollars on their terrorist obsession — you need to parse the statements carefully: “without a single reported incident” doesn’t mean there were no incidents. It means none were reported. That was then. This is now:
On April 13th of this year, workers at a Houston, Texas biodefense lab were exposed to aerosolized anthrax. Just down the road in San Antonio and only a day before (April 12th), workers entered a tularemia lab to inspect malfunctioning air filters without wearing gloves or any respiratory protection. The incidents come on the heels of major safety and security violations at Texas A&M University, a US Department of Homeland Security biodefense Center of Excellence.
The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and University of Texas at San Antonio revealed the anthrax and tularemia incidents last week in response to Texas Public Information Act requests. Documents about the incidents are now online (links below). Both were reported to the Centers for Disease Control. No infections resulted, although some workers received antibiotic treatment.
In addition to the bioweapons agent accidents in Houston and San Antonio, on Friday (14 September), the University of Texas at Austin revealed a series of mishaps, including at least four lab-acquired infections, in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005, that were not properly documented, investigated, or reported. The infections involved shigella, an infectious bacteria which, in some cases, may have been genetically engineered. (Press Release, The Sunshine Project)
The Sunshine Project has been doggedly pursuing the laboratory acquired infections in Texas and the latest revelations came just hours before a legally required document production to the group (see some of our posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here). But what The Sunshine Project’s Director, Ed Hammond, says about Texas is true everywhere:
“Reality is that lab workers and university professors screw up like the rest of us,” says Sunshine Project Director Edward Hammond. “The lack of public accident reports never indicated an absence of accidents, rather, it has reflected a pervasive cover-up culture, a problem that has been dangerously exacerbated by the mushrooming biodefense program.” Hammond continues, “What we are witnessing in Texas is not bad luck, it is the crumbling of the biodefense lobby’s safety façade.”
The biggest indictment of biodefense laboratory safety is the very thing they tout as evidence of their safety: the lack of any documentation or paperwork of the kinds of accidents that happen all the time and that we expect, even in the best run laboratories. This is an indication of lax security and an arrogant attitude. I regret to say too many of my colleagues are quick to take advantage of the easy money offered by the Bush administration terrorism obsession. It won’t make public health better or improve our safety. On the contrary, the proliferation of these laboratories make us less safe.
Some research money isn’t worth it. At least if our mission is genuinely public health.