12:07 05 July 2007
NewScientist.com news service
by Debora MacKenzie
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, Hammond’s minutes contain further, previously unreported, slip-ups:
• 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 incident.
“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.”
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