Boston biosecurity lapse was not the first

By Jeff Hecht New questions have arisen regarding the handling of deadly microbes at the Boston University Medical Center where, in 2004, three laboratory workers contracted a virulent strain of the tularaemia bacterium. The security lapses were not made public until after the centre won approval to build a new, maximum containment biodefence laboratory, prompting heavy criticism. But now New Scientist has learned that this is not the first time workers at the Clinical Microbiology and Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory were accidentally exposed to tularaemia. In 2000, a dozen people were exposed to samples from a patient who caught the disease from a wild rabbit and died (Journal of Clinical Microbiology, vol 40, p 2278.) They had handled the samples with no special precautions, even though doctors who treated the patient suspected he had died of tularaemia. All but one, who was pregnant, were treated with antibiotics and none came down with the disease, but the lab retained some samples. Tularaemia is a potential biowarfare agent because inhaling less than 10 airborne bacteria can cause the disease – which kills about 1% of patients. People cannot transmit it to each other, but it is one of the three easiest infections to catch in the lab and has infected hundreds of workers in the past. However, with proper bioconfinement precautions such as controlling air flow, “there should be essentially no [infections] in a properly managed modern laboratory”, says CJ Peters of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, US, which operates a maximum biosecurity (level 4) lab. Wild tularaemia is transmitted by contact with infected rabbits or insect carriers – the patient who died in 2000 caught it from exposure to rabbit blood. The case also raises new questions over the vexed issue of the origin of the virulent tularaemia strain that was sent to their lab in 2004. The original, supposedly benign, culture was sent to Boston by the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, US. The US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has found no contamination in duplicate cultures from Nebraska, but Boston University officials say infected rabbit blood might have accidentally been used as a medium for their cultures in Nebraska. Steve Hinrichs at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, US, counters that the samples could have been contaminated in Boston with bacteria left over from the incident in 2000. But Boston University officials say tests at the state public health service found the 2000 and 2004 strains were not identical. The University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha has requested samples to test more precisely with a new micro-array technique it has developed. It has yet to receive a response. Whatever the source of the contamination, Hinrichs is upset by Boston University’s failure to disclose its problems with tularaemia before local officials approved their plans for a level 4 lab. “That was not appropriate,” he told New Scientist. “They’ve circled their wagons without going through the typical academic process of discovery and exchange of information.” The new revelations provide more evidence for critics who argue the Boston lab should not be trusted to handle germs even more dangerous than tularemia. Although the workers fell ill in May and September 2004, the lab did not confirm tularemia infections until November 2004,
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