Monday, March 21, 2005

Accidents, what accidents?

In light of the UW's constant repetition of the mantra "we know of no public exposures from this type of lab" (with numerous variations based on the given audience they are speaking to) you might find the following of interest. It should be noted that there is no national standard or structure in place for gathering data on lab "accidents". Each state has it's own rules. It certainly makes it easier to honestly say "I know of no accidents" when there nothing there to record them.

From the Feb/March Tri-Valley Cares Newsletter

Ongoing Saga of Bio-Lab Accidents "That Don't Exist"

by Inga Olson, from February/March 2005 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Here, in your Citizen's Watch newsletter, we have documented numerous accidents with dangerous biological agents in advanced biosafety labs over the last couple of years. Taken together, these cases show that it is indeed possible for live anthrax and other bioagents to infect workers and escape into the environment.

These incidents highlight problems with implementing biosafety standards, even in high-tech countries and at prestigious U.S. universities. Lab directors who say accidents in high-containment Biosafety Level (BSL) 3 and 4 facilities are virtually unknown, fail to list even publicly-known accidents. Further, they fail to mention that there are no comprehensive, mandatory reporting requirements for lab accidents in high containment facilities. Thus, it is likely that many accidents go unreported.

Here is some of what we do know. A researcher in 2003 at one of the three BSL-3 labs in Singapore contracted SARS while unknowingly working on a cross-contaminated sample. Then, there was another accident at the National Defense University in Taipei --Taiwan's only BSL-4 facility. A medical researcher there contracted SARS in the lab on Dec. 5, 2003, flew to a medical conference in Singapore, returned Dec. 10 and eventually entered a hospital on Dec. 16 where the SARS was diagnosed.

At UC Berkeley, the genetic-modification of tuberculosis accidentally created a novel, virulent form that appears to undermine the body's own immune response. Fortunately, there was no accidental release with this agent. In May 2004, a researcher died at Russia's top bio-lab after contracting the Ebola virus. Another Ebola researcher, this time at the U.S. bio-agent facility at Fort Detrick, MD, stuck herself while working with mice and Ebola. Fortunately, she did not die.

Then, we learned that anthrax leaked at the BSL-3 at Ft. Detrick, MD. Two scientists were placed on ciprofloxacinone for 30 days. Seven linen collectors and one additional worker were also treated with antibiotics. Anthrax was found outside of the containment lab in three different places: the "clean" change room, an office and on the passbox -- an ultraviolet lighted square-area used for "safely" passing potentially contaminated material into and out of the lab suite. More than 200 colonies of Ames strain were found on the passbox. The official report cited a cavalier attitude toward safety among some personnel and multiple, serious safety deficiencies that had been blatantly ignored.

In addition to Ames strain (the strain found in the anthrax-laced letter sent to Senator Tom Daschle in 2001), Vollum 1B anthrax was also leaked at the Ft. Detrick complex. The "B" in the name is from the late Ft. Detrick microbiologist William Boyle, whose blood was used to grow the strain after he died in a 1951 lab accident.

And, what about the supposedly dead anthrax sent via Fed-Ex to the Children's Hospital lab in Oakland in 2004? It turned out to be live Ames strain and seven employees were treated with antibiotics. There is virtually no regulation of inactivated or supposedly "dead" anthrax in this country.

Here's the latest news. In 2004, at the Boston University Medical Center, three BSL-2 lab workers contracted a rare disease called tularemia. Two of the workers were hospitalized. The lab infections were not made public until 2005, after the center won approval to build a new, maximum containment biodefense lab. Now, "New Scientist" is reporting that this is not the first time workers at the Boston lab were accidentally exposed to tularemia. In 2000, a dozen people were exposed to samples from a patient who caught the disease from a wild rabbit and died.

About $14.5 billion has been spent in the U.S. on biodefense since 2001. This rapid expansion in work with dangerous pathogens is neither adequately regulated nor scientifically justified. These advanced biowarfare agent labs are posing a definite risk to the public, and they are siphoning off funds from other, badly-needed medical and public health research and facilities.

We do not want the deaths of workers at Livermore Lab's proposed, new BSL-3, or deaths of their family members or community residents, to be the impetus that finally causes a prudent look at the rash biodefense building boom in America. For this reason, Tri-Valley CAREs, in collaboration with groups across the U.S., has called for a moratorium on building, upgrading and operating new biodefense facilities until a national assessment has been conducted to determine how many, if any, new facilities are actually needed.

We also continue our lawsuit to force Livermore Lab to conduct a thorough and complete Environmental Impact Statement before moving forward with an advanced bio-warfare research lab, which would be the first to be collocated in a Dept. of Energy nuclear weapons facility (see also article on p. 1).


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