Still another lab accident at the same bioweapons facility

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)

That Galveston.

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"Q-fever is rarely, if ever (Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, 18th ed., American Public Health Association, pg. 436)"

Q fever is rarely if ever what? Fatal, Transmitted human to human, A bioweapon, Acquired in a lab accident at Texas A & M?

Sorry, quote above from the Sunshine project link to the A&M e-mail exchange on the case linked above as "over a year ago"

MoM: All of the above are true, although which they meant in the exchange you'll have to ask them. I'm sure you get a swift response. In 2110.

What's the connection to US troops in Iraq? Were they immunized and then developed it?

It is ironic that this problem occurred in a Texas A&M bioweapons lab and that there has been a lack of candor about the mishap, given the witch hunt that crucified anthrax bioterrorism researcher Dr. Thomas Butler at nearby Texas Tech. This travesty is summarized on my website's blog. For details, see also: John Mangel's thoughtful series in the Cleveland Plain Dealer for an excellent review of this tragic story.

"Destroying the Life and Career of a Valued Physician-Scientist (pdf) provides an excellent commentary and is a must read.

stu: We don't know where they are getting it from as far as I know. The EID paper has discounted its use there as a biowarfare agent because of the sporadic pattern. Most likely the troops have encountered it in the environment in the dried leavings of infected animals (feces, placenta, etc.). The US military does not have an approved vaccine for Q fever.

Judy: Regarding the Mangel case, I quite agree. Ridiculous and tragic at the same time.

I wonder if David Murray, the self-proclaimed inventor of the foolproof (his words per link) lab is the same nimrod who is building the second.

I wonder if the instruction at A&M is safety or hubris.

For a good read about the history of the Galveston hurricane, the Weather Bureau, and the weatherman who was on duty to catch this, both in hardback and on audio, there is
"Isaac's Storm" by Erik Larson. A great read, starts slow like a hurricane, then is gripping and overwhelming, like a hurricane.

Darin: It's not clear exactly where the lab is located where this occurred. I doubt this was done in a BSL4 and Texas A&M is in College Station, not Galveston. I mentioned Galveston and the BSL4 because they are host of the program this guy teaches in and they are a particularly unsuitable place for a BSL4 lab because of the environmental issues. I think that wasn't so clear and that is my fault.

Revere at 3:20 wrote: "I doubt this was done in a BSL4..."

If you are talking about the Q fever episode, the document released to Sunshine (linked in your post above) states:

"there is no evidence the organism has breached the BL3 Laboratory containment."

"BL3" probably means "BSL3."

According to a CDC lab safety chief, Rob Weyant, "A BSL-3 laboratory is designed to contain agents that may cause serious or lethal disease as a result of inhalation. Examples of the microorganisms assigned to this level are Mycobacterium tuberculosis, St. Louis encephalitis virus, and Coxiella burnetii, the agent that causes Q fever." (

By Path Forward (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

The Principal Investigator in question conducts aerosol challenges of pigs with C. burnetti. The pigs are apparently in development as a human model of Q fever infection.

The fact that it's pigs that we are talking about - large, unwieldy animals - narrows the possibilities to the single large animal BSL-3AG at Texas A&M (called the "LARR" in Aggiespeak). The LARR handles select agent challenges with animals as large as bison. ("Here boy, we want you to breathe some nice, cool air... but please, don't cough lilke that.")

Having said that, A&M is now claiming that the infections were detected as a result of routine serological monitoring. This claim, and the associated timelines, merit investigation once more documents emerge. (They have been requested from A&M.)

The most remarkable aspect of this so far, IMHO, is that A&M was subjected to an investigation (of the brucellosis case) by CDC in April 2007. Yet, even when CDC was on campus investigating select agents, A&M apparently declined to tell them about the Q fever incident(s). Thus, having just completed one investigation of A&M, CDC is now obliged to conduct another. The Dallas Morning News has an article that elaborates.


Thanks for the information on the Butler case. I had never heard of it before about 10 minutes ago. I really wish I were surprised, but I'm not. Another splendid example of American justice at work, in the terminal years of our failed experiment with democratic political forms.

And yet another example of the American "free press" in action. Stalin never had it so good. He's probably beside himself with envy, even burning in hell the way he most assuredly is if the Christian theology is even close to the mark.

BTW, the Cleveland Plain Dealer link is dead.

By Charles Roten (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Agitant: Great work (as always). Thanks for the additional info.

Charles: The Butler case was covered fairly well in the US and scientific press but it is an atrocious miscarriage of justice.

Revere, it wasn't intended as justice, it was intended as intimidation.

As for the weapons labs errors, what else would you expect out of Texans?

They drive around with gun-racks in their trucks and open beer in the cabs, but what they really need are safety-scissors.

By Lisa the GP (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink

Lets back up a tad. First there are no bioweapons labs any longer, its biodefense. We have that by treaty. Now its a semantics issue because to make treatments and vaccines for weaponized bugs, you have to have the weaponized bug. You also have the right to make more of the bug for research. So you could have thousands of pounds of the bug and call it research materials. Nice.....

MoM-Its not a real bioweapon unless you want to just make them sick. Bioweapons are used for killing people. To hell with incapacitating an army. You kill the bastards if you can, plain and simple. Q is like using harsh language on them.

Here's a link

My bet is that they were doing biodefensive research or just plain research as you can get this crap from being in a barn and their little playtoy got loose. Okay, its clear they violated the law. Be glad it wasnt smallpox and that this and equally as bad research is going on all over the place. I think the inferrence here is that the Aggies need a front end alignment, I agree. In the same breath though the question needs to be asked if anyone ELSE is having the same problems? If not, shut the Aggies facility down until they get their shit together or shutter it completely. Oh and by the way, dont let your state be the first kid in your region to have a bright and shiny new biodefense lab. We need bug research, but thats for the normal stuff. You get something in your backyard that could whack you, eventually something happens that allows it out. What do we do one day if BF comes and they are unable to secure that facility or power it? They do have tornado's down yonder dont they?

The itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout.......

Lisa-I believe the activities regarding Texans is currently legal in their state..I dont know whether you were trying to be funny but I have a gun rack in my 2500, I live in Tennessee. I also carry IAW the law a large bore weapon on my person. But alas they did away with the open container laws several years ago. Ever been to W. Texas? Even the cops keep booze in the car to take the edge off the dust. Thats if you can find one. Ratio is 1 to every 30,000 out that way.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink


1) Thanks to the folks of Effect Size for their courage and patriotism-- desperately hope your efforts lead to more positive change then retaliation against you. Perhaps a top priority must be to deal directly with the need for mutual support. Can anyone suggest a good, practical source for this?

2) The fish does indeed rot from the head down at least in the case of NIH. When NIH built its first Level 4 lab in unevacuatable-in-finite-time, suburban Washington, D.C., the Noble Prize recipient head of NIH claimed the p(adverse event at the lab) =
1/distance to the moon ^2). I asked him for the basis of this remarkable claim and after several weeks got a slick booklet with no data or rationale. So any debacle deep in the heart of Texas, however deplorable, is not surprising.

3) My greatest worry is a type I error leading to catastrophic loss of life when folks near an urban Level 4 Lab panic when they see the moon-suited responders and respond with the largest traffic "accident" in history. I asked a marine officer how long he could control a picked squad of marines, not in protective gear, when they saw the hard to mistake responders. I think he said, if it were a picked squad, perhaps as long as 30 minutes.

By Thomas J. Nagy… (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink

What do we do one day if BF comes and they are unable to secure that facility or power it?

Exactly what I've been wondering MRK with where we live. Suddenly "this place" doesn't seem to be the right place to be. And then again, will there really be any place that is suitable for survival other than your neighborhood or the far North?

Suddenly "this place" doesn't seem to be the right place to be. And then again, will there really be any place that is suitable for survival other than your neighborhood or the far North?

American Pandemic.

It's everywhere you want to be.

By Charles Roten (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink