Biosafety lapses reported at 3 more Texas labs

Sep 19, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Three University of Texas facilities have recently had laboratory accidents with dangerous pathogens, including the agents of anthrax, tularemia, and shigellosis, according to a statement yesterday from the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit group that monitors biodefense research safety.

Two of the locations—University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center at Houston and UT at San Antonio—perform "select agent" work in biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) labs. The third site—UT at Austin—does not do biodefense work, but some of the university's work is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which expects labs to follow guidelines for reporting lab accidents, the Austin American-Statesman reported yesterday.

The incidents were revealed as a result of Texas freedom-of-information requests made by the Austin-based Sunshine Project. The lab accidents involved:

  • Aerosolized Bacillus anthracis, a category A bioterrorism agent, at UT Health Science Center in Houston
  • Francisella tularensis, another category A bioterrorism agent, at UT at San Antonio
  • Shigella, a food- or waterborne category B agent, which the Sunshine Project says may have been genetically engineered, at UT at Austin

The new incidents closely follow mishaps that occurred at Texas A&M University's BSL-3 lab, which prompted the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to suspend biodefense work there until CDC inspectors verify that the school has corrected problems identified in a recent agency investigation. The accidents at Texas A&M involved Brucella and Coxiella burnetti and were also were revealed through the Sunshine Project's ongoing investigation of safety at biodefense labs.

Anthrax exposure risk at Houston lab
On Apr 13, workers at the UT Health Science Center in Houston were potentially exposed to aerosolized B anthracis when liquid from vials leaked inside an unshielded tabletop centrifuge. Documents posted on the Sunshine Project's Web site indicate that the school reported the accident to the CDC.

The documents suggest that the potentially exposed lab workers received anthrax vaccine booster shots and were monitored by student health services. However, it appears they declined prophylactic antibiotic treatment because they believed the vial that leaked was a blank that didn't contain B anthracis. No infections were reported.

David Bates, director of media relations at UT Health Science Center in Houston, told CIDRAP News that the center's environmental health and safety department has an outstanding safety compliance record, a proactive training system, and biosafety and incident response plans that are constantly reviewed. The center is known for its strong safety record, he said. Its environmental health and safety team was recently called on to review Texas A&M's lab procedures in the wake of the recent lab accidents.

It would be wrong to characterize the anthrax incident at the UT Health Science Center as a failure of procedures or training, Bates said. He said the lab notified the appropriate authorities, and the CDC told the safety team the center's institutional response was appropriate.

"Area monitoring ensured that no materials were released from the lab containment area," Bates said. "The safety of our employees and students is a priority one concern."

Problem at San Antonio facility
On Apr 12, workers at a lab at UT in San Antonio entered a tularemia lab without wearing any gloves or respiratory protection to inspect faulty air filters, according to documents from the school, also made available on the Sunshine Project's Web site.

No active research was being conducted when the workers entered the lab without protection, and researchers who conducted experiments with the agent the previous night performed routine decontamination procedures afterward, the documents suggest. The workers were advised to seek prophylactic antibiotic treatment, which they reportedly received from their personal physicians, according to the documents. On follow-up, none of the workers reported infection symptoms.

Though the university didn't believe the incident represented a release, loss, or theft of a select agent—events that require CDC notification—it submitted a report on the safety violation anyway, according to the documents.

Shigella sickens workers at Austin site
However, a series of lab accidents at UT in Austin involving Shigella appears more serious. The Sunshine Project said it had submitted a freedom-of-information request to the university, but the university revealed the laboratory accidents to the Austin American-Statesman hours before a deadline for releasing documents to the watchdog group.

According to the newspaper accounts, UT at Austin officials said there were at least four lab-acquired infections between 2002 and 2005 that were not properly documented, investigated, or reported. In one of the incidents, a lab worker was checking Shigella samples in June 2003 and found that caps had shaken off test tubes, which might have contributed to airborne exposure, a Sep 15 story said. The worker got sick and was treated with antibiotics, the report said.

UT at Austin records suggested that that and other exposures to Shigella could have been prevented if workers had been wearing protective glasses and face shields, the news report said.

In a statement released yesterday, UT at Austin said that this past spring the NIH asked the school about lab accidents that had occurred since January 2000, and a systematic review revealed 13 incidents in the university's laboratories during that period. Of five involving Shigella, four resulted in worker illnesses; all the workers have recovered.

The NIH request, as well as the freedom-of-information requests, prompted UT Austin to review laboratory policies and procedures at the nearly 1,000 facilities on campus, the statement said, adding, "The University and sponsoring entities, such as NIH, and the public must be assured that safe laboratory research, training, and education are being conducted at and by the University."

Changes UT at Austin said it has made include adding new training procedures and programs, establishing a rapid-response team to handle lab accidents, providing more staff to the school's biosafety committee, and reviewing how the university manages its research programs.

Disturbing pattern or normal events?
Edward Hammond, Sunshine Project director, said in the group's news release that though lab accidents aren't unexpected, the scarcity of accident reports is a concern because it gives a false impression of how safe the biodefense lab environments are and how big a risk the facilities pose to communities.

"What we are witnessing in Texas is not bad luck, it is the crumbling of the biodefense lobby's safety façade," Hammond said in the report.

He said the recent dates of the incidents at the three UT facilities raise suspicions that the schools began documenting lab accidents only after biosafety problems surfaced in April at Texas A&M. "We surmise that until the Texas A&M scandal, some of the University of Texas institutions had a de facto policy of not recording accidents with bioweapons agents, probably for fear of the potentially embarrassing and costly consequences," Hammond stated.

A Twin Cities-based laboratory expert who asked not to be named told CIDRAP News today that rare human infections from work with pathogens are not entirely unexpected in a laboratory setting, as is true of nosocomial infections in hospitals.

Though the Sunshine Project's work raises valid safety issues, which are worth exploring, "I'm not certain the problems reach the level of a crisis," the expert said.

The number of Shigella infections at UT Austin is high, but may not be entirely abnormal, the lab expert said, adding, "But if it was the same strain each time, it might suggest a continuing problem that hasn't been fixed." The source said the incidents involving tularemia and anthrax, however, do appear to represent lapses in safety monitoring procedures or training.

"Whatever dangers these incidents may have presented to the laboratory workers, I see no evidence that problems represented any danger to the broader community," the expert added.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US government has boosted the number of biodefense labs. For example, in 2003 federal officials announced plans for 11 new biodefense facilities. Much of the biodefense work has been funded by Project BioShield, a $5.6 billion program established in 2004 to speed the development of medical treatments for the effects of biological and other unconventional weapons.

The Sunshine Project said it supports closer federal oversight of US biodefense labs, including legal reforms, mandatory accident reporting, and increased transparency. The group was established in 1999.

In August, the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce announced plans to hold a hearing in early October to examine the risks associated with the nation's growing number of labs that handle dangerous microbial agents.

See also:

Sep 18 University of Texas at Austin press release

Sep 6 CIDRAP News story "Texas A&M chief vows to fix biodefense lab problems"

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