Nightmare at Texas A&M

Texas A&M's work on agents of interest to biodefense has its two month suspension continued by CDC because of persistent and extensive violation of safety rules (posts here, here, here, here and here).

The violations alleged by the CDC include the university's inability to account for at least three vials of microbes, which the CDC described as "missing." In addition, one researcher was working to develop antibiotic-resistant strains of a regulated bacterium even though he had not received the CDC's permission.

What's more, laboratory workers did not don proper laboratory clothing or face masks to prevent their becoming infected and sometimes wore the clothing outside of the lab before it was decontaminated. At least seven times, workers were given access to regulated microbes before they gained permission under CDC rules, which require each worker to undergo a background security check.


In late June, the agency had suspended all of the university's research with microbes defined as "select agents" under federal rules that took effect in 2002 as a result of the anthrax attacks a year earlier. The June suspension, the first of its kind, came after the university failed to promptly report two cases of accidental exposure of laboratory workers to infectious agents (The Chronicle, July 13). (Chronicle of Higher Eduction)

A visit by a team of CDC inspectors found the following:

  • The three "missing" vials contained Brucella abortus, a bacterium that causes fevers, but rarely death, in humans. They were used by a former university researcher.
  • Texas A&M's plans for safety, security, and emergency response involving research on the microbes were listed as drafts, and the university had not conducted drills at least annually to test the plans' effectiveness.
  • The university failed to produce several types of relevant records. They included training records for regulated lab workers, and documentation that deficiencies identified by the university's internal oversight board, the Institutional Biosafety Committee, had been corrected.
  • There was no coordinated response or assessment after routine blood tests of laboratory workers indicated possible exposure to microbes being studied.
  • Three of four principal investigators inspected by the CDC had "poorly organized inventory records" of the microbes they were studying, making "inventory reconciliation difficult and cumbersome."
  • A laboratory device used in the research lacked a required filter to catch dangerous microbes in its exhaust.

On two separate occasions laboratory workers got sick from exposures to select agents (agents with biowarfare potential), but the university didn't report it.

I doubt that Texas A&M is an outlier. In the wake of CDC's actions, lots of other labs are probably holding their breath (a good idea, given what they work with) and saying, "There but for the Grace of God . . . " [NB: this is a colloquial expression and not a signal I have lost my bearings in a complex world]. We were lucky that the agents were not ones easily transmitted from person to person. We continue to multiply these laboratories, whose research is of marginal public health importance, because the Bush administration has dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into bioterrorism fantasies. We also multiply the chance we will see an event not as benign in consequence as those at Texas A&M. Already Foot and Mouth Disease escaped into local livestock from a laboratory in the UK (.pdf).

Still 495 more days of this, our national nightmare. January 20, 2009. Day of Deliverance. I hope.

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