[m2c] Plague of bioweapons accidents afflicts the US
sandinista at shaw.ca
Sat Aug 4 15:25:35 MDT 2007
Plague of bioweapons accidents afflicts the US
by Debora MacKenzie
Jul 5, 2007
Deadly germs may be more likely to be spread due to a biodefence lab
accident than a biological attack by terrorists.
Plague, anthrax, Rocky Mountain spotted fever - these are among the
bioweapons some experts fear could be used in a germ warfare attack
against the US. But the public has had near-misses with those diseases
and others over the past five years, ironically because of accidents in
labs that were working to defend against bioterrorists. Even worse,
they may be only the tip of an iceberg.
The revelations come from Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a
biosafety pressure group based in Austin, Texas, US, who after
persistent requests got the minutes of university biosafety committees
using the US Freedom of Information Act. The minutes are accessible to
the public by law.
There are now 20,000 people at 400 sites around the US working with
putative bioweapons germs, says Hammond, 10 times more than before the
terrorist attacks of 9/11. Some scientists have warned for years that
more people handling dangerous germs are a recipe for accidents.
The fears have been borne out by publicised infections of lab workers
with tularemia, brucellosis and Q fever.
The Q fever incident took place at Texas A&M University, which has now
been ordered to stop research into potential bioweapons while an
investigation takes place.
However, Hammonds minutes contain further, previously unreported,
At the University of New Mexico, one worker was jabbed with an
anthrax-laden needle, and another with a syringe containing an
undisclosed, genetically engineered microbe.
At the Medical University of Ohio, workers were exposed to and
infected with Valley Fever.
At the University of Chicago, there was another puncture with an
undisclosed agent normally requiring heavy containment, probably
anthrax or plague.
At the University of California at Berkeley, workers handled deadly
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which spreads in the air, without
containment when it was mislabelled as harmless.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and at Albert
Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, workers were exposed to
TB when containment equipment failed.
As yet, none of the accidents have been serious in outcome. But,
Hammond fears, more such accidents may go unreported. "Instead of a
'culture of responsibility', the federal government has instilled a
culture of denial" he says. "Labs hide problems, and think that
accident reporting is for masochists"
Without stringently enforced reporting rules, he says, labs have every
reason to cover up accidents. They want to avoid losing research funds,
and fear the massive official reaction to any accident such as the
imprisonment of plague researcher Thomas Butler in 2003. And he claims
Texas A&M officials have said they now regret reporting the Q fever
"I think the answer is to create a level playing field by having clear
and absolutely mandatory reporting requirements," says Hammond.
"Eliminate even the possibility of an institution claiming that it does
not have to report infections."
"The labs will say, you can't do that because then people won't report
accidents," says Hammond. "Well, I think it's pretty clear that people
don't report accidents as it stands."
Aug. 2, 2007, 10:56PM
A&M official resigns to focus on closed bioweapons labs
Research chief wants to restart the biodefense program shut down by CDC
By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Texas A&M University's vice president of research says he will resign
his position to focus all of his energy on bringing the school's
federally funded biodefense research program into compliance.
Richard Ewing, who has served as A&M's research chief for seven years,
said Thursday that he made the decision at the recommendation of the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which visited the campus
last week to scrutinize handling of biological agents.
The federal agency told Ewing he is stretched too thin to devote the
necessary time to overseeing research on regulated toxins or microbes,
known as "select agents."
Ewing said he did not shed the vice presidency under pressure.
"I feel it is my responsibility to bring the laboratories back to full
compliance," he said. "It will be my No. 1 priority. I didn't have to
be asked. I felt it was my duty."
The CDC took the unprecedented step of suspending A&M's bioweapons
research last month after the university failed to report researchers
had been exposed to two of the agents.
University leaders expect a report from the agency within three weeks.
A CDC spokesman said the investigation is continuing. The findings
could result in fines of up to $500,000 or loss of funding.
"In the meantime, be assured that we fully intend to take all steps
necessary to prepare to resume our full scope of research activity in
this important area," Eddie Davis, A&M's interim president, wrote in a
university-wide letter this week. "However, our research will not
resume until we are confident that we can ensure complete safety and
full compliance of our program, and until we receive reauthorization
from the CDC."
A&M's problems began in February 2006 with the failure to report a
researcher's exposure to Brucella bacteria immediately, as federal law
requires. The worker became ill after climbing into a chamber with the
bacteria in aerosol form, but recovered.
A&M filed the report 14 months later, prompting a visit from federal
inspectors, who found problems with safety and security and evidence
that some research was done without prior approval from the CDC. A&M
later suspended the lead researcher in the Brucella case.
Three A&M researchers tested positive in April 2006 for the bacterium
that causes Q fever, which is highly infectious but rarely deadly. But
university officials have suggested that case did not rise to the
level requiring federal notification.
Ewing acknowledged he did not know about the Brucella exposure until
April this year. He said he delegated daily oversight of the labs to
"I thought we had an excellent system set up, and we had a human error
that allowed it to fail," he said.
Ewing said he took on too many responsibilities during his time as
vice president. His resignation, effective Aug. 31, will allow him to
focus on the five suspended labs, he said.
Once the university resolves the CDC's concerns — which Ewing said he
expects to happen quickly — Ewing plans to return to his tenured
faculty position. He is a distinguished professor of mathematics and
engineering and director of the Institute for Scientific Computation.
The resignation surprised Douglas Slack, a former president of the
faculty senate, who worked closely with Ewing on research-related
"I'm stunned because I thought he was quite capable and provided a lot
of leadership," Slack said.
matthew.tresaugue at chron.com
By MARTIN SIEFF
UPI Senior News Analyst
WASHINGTON, July 31 (UPI) -- The senior GOP member of a powerful U.S.
House oversight panel has called for an inquiry into security at the
nation's most dangerous bioweapons labs.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the ranking member of the House Committee on
Oversight and Government Reform, called for the probe Tuesday in a
letter to committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
"The integrity of BioSafety Level 3 and 4 laboratory procedures,"
Davis wrote, referring to the highest security level facilities, "is
emerging as a critical national and homeland security issue" in the
wake of a series of revelations about equipment failures and the
accidental release of dangerous germs and other pathogens.
There was no immediate response from Waxman's office.
Davis referred in his letter to two incidents at Texas A&M
University's bioweapons lab in early 2006, in which staff were exposed
to deadly bacteria, but which were not reported, as required, to the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Last month, CDC ordered the university to cease work on certain
pathogens until an investigation into the matter was completed.
Davis' letter also referenced an incident at the CDC itself, where a
power outage last month shut down a vital ventilation system in the
centers' bio-terror laboratory.
Davis said the incidents raised questions about security and other
regulations at level 3 and 4 facilities, which he said had
proliferated since Sept. 11, 2001.
He also pointed out that the Government Accountability Office was
looking into the issue and could provide testimony or other assistance
to the committee.
"Until all of us are free, the few who think they are remain tainted
with enslavement." Lee Maracle
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