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Research into potent bioagents increases the risk

Hundreds of universities and labs have joined the study of toxic microbes. Since 2003, there have been 111 accidents.

October 03, 2007|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

The researcher at Texas A&M University had never been trained to handle Brucella, a bacterium included on the government's select list of potential bioweapon microbes.

Her work was in a different type of bacteria, but when asked to help clean a chamber that had been used to create an aerosol version of Brucella, she leaned inside and wiped it down.

The bacteria entered her body through her eyes, investigators later surmised. She was infected for more than a month before doctors diagnosed her with brucellosis and put her on a regimen of strong antibiotics.

The incident last year was part of a small but unsettling number of laboratory accidents that has followed a boom in research funding after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the still-unsolved anthrax mailings that came a week later.

The burst of money has spread biodefense work to hundreds of university and research laboratories. In some cases, the labs have been ill-prepared to work on the exotic microbes.

"Universities aren't set up to handle these programs," said Edward Hammond, U.S. director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit group in Austin, Texas, that tracks information on biological weapons research. "I think we made a serious mistake putting 400 labs, thousands of people in the U.S., in the driver's seat behind biological weapons."

All told, there have been 111 cases involving potential loss of bioagents or human exposure reported since 2003 to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The incidents include the potential exposure of 12 laboratory workers to live anthrax bacteria after an incorrect sample was sent to Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in 2004, the infection of three researchers at Boston University in 2004 after they mistakenly handled a sample of live tularemia bacteria, and the disappearance of a mouse infected with Q fever at Texas A&M in 2006.

Federal officials say that the overall number of incidents is small, and they emphasize that no one has died -- and that no one beyond laboratory workers has been infected.

"If you're looking at the total amount of work in these labs, it strikes me that 100 incidents is very low," said Dr. Richard E. Besser, director of the CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response. "Full investigations were done, and none of the events were thought to put the public at risk."

But Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University who has been monitoring biodefense safety issues, said that given the potential danger of the materials, the number of accidents is, in some ways, immaterial.

"Twenty-five incidents per year does not represent a good record," he said. "It only takes one incident in which a highly transmissible agent is introduced into a human population to produce a catastrophic loss."

Following the money

Before 2001, experts say much of biodefense research took place in government laboratories, such as the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick in Maryland. There, scientists in full-body suits worked in containment laboratories developing vaccines for some of the world's most hideous diseases, such as Ebola, Marburg hemorrhagic fever, anthrax, smallpox, tularemia and Lassa fever.

Then, everything changed. A week after the Sept. 11 attacks, letters containing anthrax spores began appearing around the country. Five people died and 17 others were infected.

The incident prompted Congress to dramatically increase biodefense funding. Research money from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which administers a major portion of biodefense funding, has grown from $187 million in 2002 to $1.6 billion in 2006.

Scientists followed the money. The CDC now counts about 14,000 researchers registered to work with so-called "select agents."

Biodefense experts were worried from the beginning about the expansion.

Increasing the number of laboratories increased the chances of an accident, experts said. Ebright said that the expansion also raised the problem of spreading the deadly knowledge of bioagents to potential terrorists.

Some of the early fears have not materialized. For example, there have been no confirmed thefts or losses of bioagents.

"We're in a much better place now than we were four years ago," the CDC's Besser said. "Now we have really strong requirements about who is allowed to work with these agents and what kinds of safety and security are in place."

In 2002, new federal rules required biodefense researchers to register their labs with the CDC or USDA to work with the agents, and pass a Department of Justice background check. They were also required to devise safety plans and report accidents to the government.

Still, concerns linger that the rules are inadequate. Congress has begun investigating the issue, and a hearing in Washington is scheduled for Thursday.

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