WASHINGTON – American laboratories handling the world’s deadliest germs and toxins have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, and the number is increasing as more labs do the work.
No one died, and regulators said the public was never at risk during these incidents. But the documented cases reflect poorly on procedures and oversight at high-security labs, some of which work with organisms and poisons that can cause incurable illnesses.
The mishaps include workers bitten or scratched by infected animals, skin cuts, needle sticks and more, according to a review by the Associated Press of confidential reports submitted to federal regulators. They describe accidents involving bird flu virus, monkeypox and plague-causing bacteria at 44 labs in 24 states.
The incidents include the potential exposure of 12 laboratory workers to live anthrax bacteria after an incorrect sample was sent to Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in 2004; the infection of three researchers at Boston University in 2004 after they mistakenly handled a sample of live tularemia bacteria; and the disappearance of a mouse infected with Q fever at Texas A&M in 2006.
The number of accidents has risen steadily. Through August, the most recent period covered in the reports obtained by the AP, labs reported 36 accidents and lost shipments during 2007 – nearly double the number reported during all of 2004.
The increase in laboratory accidents has followed a boom in research funding after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the still-unsolved anthrax mailings that came a week later.
The burst of money has spread biodefense work to hundreds of university and research laboratories. The number of labs approved by the government to handle the deadliest substances has nearly doubled to 409 since 2004, and there are now 15 of the highest-security labs.
“Universities aren’t set up to handle these programs,” said Edward Hammond, U.S. director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit group that tracks information on biological weapons research. “I think we made a serious mistake putting 400 labs, thousands of people in the U.S. in the driver’s seat behind biological weapons.”
In a new report by congressional investigators, the Government Accountability Office said little is known about labs that aren’t federally funded or don’t work with any of 72 dangerous substances the government monitors most closely. The House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee plans hearings today on the issue.