Infected lab worker lacked proper approval

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas – At least one Texas A&M University lab employee exposed last year to a dangerous infectious agent lacked federal approval to work with it, according to records reviewed by The Dallas Morning News.

And other high-safety experiments appear to have been conducted in lab facilities authorized only for storage.

The revelations are the latest in a mounting scientific scandal at Texas A&M, stemming from the university’s failure to report to the federal government one illness and several other cases of workers being exposed to “select agents.” That has prompted the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention to suspend the federally funded biodefense program’s prized research and has jeopardized the program’s future.

More than a dozen CDC agents left College Station on Thursday, after four days of investigating a Brucella infection and several Q-Fever exposures in campus labs.

A female lab worker fell seriously ill with Brucella in February 2006 when she leaned into an aerosol chamber to clean it. Records show that, on top of failing to report the incident to the CDC, the university had not obtained approval for that lab employee to work with Brucella. Nor was the university authorized to work with aerosols in the facility where the experiment was housed, according to a letter from a high-ranking CDC director that cites the university’s “serious deficiencies in biosafety and security standards.”

Texas A&M officials have accepted blame for the infection, and for not reporting it until a year after it occurred. The lead researcher overseeing the experiment remains on leave.

“Folks here, they’re saying, “Nobody died.’ That’s not the point. That doesn’t make it OK to make a mistake,” A&M Chancellor Mike McKinney said. “Yes, we messed up, but we didn’t mess up on purpose. There’s that saying, never assume a conspiracy if it could just be incompetence.”

But university officials continue to assert that they didn’t need approval for the lab worker because she was cleaning up, not participating in an experiment. And they debate specifics over where and when they were authorized to conduct aerosol studies.

Texas A&M has received the bulk of the scrutiny, but it’s not the only Texas university with biological security breaches.

A Dallas Morning News review of personal injury and occupational safety reports at the six state universities conducting lab-based biodefense research found a handful of infections with select agents, such as anthrax and smallpox, over the last five years. Even with 350 facilities nationwide authorized to use them, CDC officials have learned of just 15 select agent exposure incidents since 2006.

But the Texas schools reported dozens of needle pricks, splashes, inhalations and exposure to other deadly, highly monitored diseases over the last several years – everything from tuberculosis to HIV.

Among the cases obtained by The Dallas Morning News:

• In February, a lab worker at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center was cut by a pair of scissors used on a mouse infected with HIV. The worker went on antiviral medication immediately and never fell ill.

• A lab worker at Texas A&M cut a finger in June while slicing the lymph node of a cow with tuberculosis. The employee suffered no health problems.

• An employee at the University of Texas Medical Branch in July 2006 pricked herself with a needle used to treat an anthrax-infected mouse. The employee took antibiotics and did not get sick.

• Four people working in a lab at the UT Health Science Center in Houston in May discovered a leak of a liquid they believed was anthrax-tainted. The workers, who feared they may have inhaled the substance, did not fall ill.

In all, Texas A&M, UT-Southwestern, the UT Medical Branch and the UT Health Science Center in Houston reported a combined 58 infectious disease exposures in and outside of lab settings since 2002, none of which posed serious public health threats. Both Texas Tech University and the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio responded to The Dallas Morning News’ request by saying they had no such reports.

Infectious diseases researchers say it’s impossible to prevent all lab accidents and these numbers are relatively low. That so few cases resulted in illness signals that Texas universities take quick action and carefully follow protocol when mishaps occur, they said.

“They’re very rare – and most of them aren’t even the kinds of exposure we’re required to report,” said Dr. Stanley Lemon, who directs the federally funded Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “But when they happen, we take them very seriously. … The biggest hazard in a laboratory like these is to the lab worker, and it’s being stuck by a needle. We work extremely hard to make the environment as safe as possible for these individuals.”

But opponents of biodefense research say it’s pure luck that the security breaches haven’t yielded more serious consequences – and no college campus is secure enough to house multimillion-dollar homeland security experiments with dangerous agents.

“Texas A&M really screwed things up. But I don’t think they’re the only ones that have a mess like this on their hands,” said Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, the organization that first uncovered Texas A&M’s exposures. “Universities generally don’t have the command and control structures that are needed to handle biodefense research safely.”

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