Biodefence work halted at US university
Indefinite suspension follows safety lapses at Texas A&M.
The US government has halted biodefence research at Texas A&M University in College Station over safety concerns. It is the first ban on such work across an entire institution.
The indefinite suspension follows two reports from an activist group alleging the university failed to promptly tell the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, that workers had twice been exposed to pathogens considered bioweapons.
The sanctions affect five laboratories and 120 people, and will stand at least until a CDC review, set for July. Texas A&M could face fines of up to $750,000, and a long-term ban on funding for similar research.
Texas A&M records recently obtained by the Sunshine Project, a biodefence watchdog based in Austin, Texas, reveal that in April 2006 three workers showed signs of exposure to Coxiella burnetii, a bacterium carried in livestock that causes Q fever in humans. None fell ill.
And in February 2006, a student contracted Brucella, another fever-causing bacterium carried by dairy animals, while cleaning a chamber that aerosolizes bacteria, according to documents released earlier this year. The student was treated with antibiotics.
Neither incident was reported to the CDC until April 2007. Coxiella and Brucella are 'select agents' — toxins and organisms whose use is tightly regulated. Officials are required to report exposures immediately.
Penalties too soft
"When you see a lapse such as this, you begin to wonder what else is not going according to the biosafety guidelines," says Jonathan Richmond, former director of the Office of Health and Safety at the CDC until 2002. His office established rules governing select agents.
He says the A&M sanctions will force other biodefence labs to examine their safety procedures.
In 2006, an audit found flaws in handling select agents at 11 out of 15 institutions surveyed, ranging from improper record-keeping to holes in security. And in 2005, the government fined Boston University in Massachusetts $8,100 after workers there contracted tularemia, another potential bioweapon.
The penalties have been too lenient, says Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, who has criticized biodefence funding. "The message has gone out that if there's an infraction, there may be some bad publicity, but the agencies will work with the institution to settle matters. The cash flow will continue," he says.
A more serious sanction — million-dollar fines or a long-term suspension of biodefence work — would send a significant message, he says.
Texas A&M officials hope to have their biodefence programme back in business soon.
Speaking in a press conference on Monday, Texas A&M interim president Eddie Davis said the delayed reporting of the Brucella exposure was an administrative mistake, and the Q fever positives resulted from testing beyond CDC requirements.
"There was a clear screw-up. I don't see a cover-up," Davis said. A researcher involved with the Brucella exposure is currently on paid leave, pending an investigation.
Texas A&M's National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense is supported by a three-year $18-million grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The university is one of 18 sites bidding to host a $450-million federal complex of labs called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.