A federal investigation into the release of a dangerous bacterium from the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Louisiana has found serious problems with biosafety procedures, including workers who improperly used or even eschewed protective clothing.
Concerns arose at the center in Covington, Louisiana, after two rhesus macaques became ill in late November with melioidosis, a disease caused by the tropical bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei. In January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Agriculture investigators traced the strain infecting the primates to a vaccine research lab working with mice. Last month, as the investigation continued, CDC suspended the primate center’s 10 or so research projects involving B. pseudomallei and other select agents (a list of dangerous bacteria, viruses, and toxins that are tightly regulated). Meanwhile, a report in USA Today suggested the bacterium might have contaminated the center’s soil or water.
In a press release today, CDC concludes that investigators could not pin down “the specific transmission event” that led to the monkeys’ infections but that “plausible mechanisms were uncovered.” Inspectors found “lapses” in the use of outerwear, “which could have led to the bacteria clinging to inner garments and getting carried out of the select agent lab where research was being conducted with the bacteria on mice.” Those workers might have transferred B. pseudomallei to the center’s primate breeding colony or to a clinic where the monkeys are given medical care, the release says.
In addition, workers “frequently entered the select agent lab without appropriate protective clothing,” the release says. No center staff has shown signs of illness. On 12 March, however, Tulane announced that blood tests have found that one worker has low levels of antibodies to the bacterium, suggesting possible exposure at the center, according to ABC News. CDC also said it “has found no evidence to date to suggest the organism was released into the surrounding environment.” Still, select agent research will remain on hold until Tulane demonstrates it is following proper biosafety procedures.
In a statement, a Tulane University representative said the center is working to implement “the recommended corrective actions” and has called in an expert in select agent research for advice. “We apologize for any anxiety, discomfort or inconvenience this incident has caused,” the statement says.
The Tulane lapses came months after several accidents at federal high-containment labs prompted federal officials to temporarily halt funding for about a dozen projects that involve tweaking dangerous viruses in ways that make them riskier to humans.