« Home | Specialist Town Takes His Case to Washington » | Rockville biotech wins $448M contract for anthrax ... » | Illnesses still dogging 25% of Gulf War veterans » | The Biggest FDA Reform In A Decade » | Emergent BioSolutions signs $448 mln contract » | Soldier faces threats from military after refusing... » | South Texans donate plasma to defend against anthr... » | Lawmakers concerned over slow pace of anthrax vacc... » | DON'T MISS the Montel Williams Show, Friday, Sep 7... » | Emergent BioSolutions Paid Lobbyist »

Reports reveal dozens of accidents involving deadliest toxins at U.S. labs

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON | American laboratories handling the world’s deadliest germs and toxins have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003 — including five in Kansas City.

No one died, and regulators said the public was never at risk during these incidents. But the documented cases reflect poorly on high-security labs, some of which work with organisms and poisons that can cause illnesses with no cure. Labs have failed to report some accidents as law requires.

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 anthrax, bird flu virus, monkeypox and plague-causing bacteria at 44 labs in 24 states. Many are still being investigated.

At Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City, two incidents involved lab workers opening packages that contained leaking anthrax — lethal bacteria, though there is an effective vaccine and antidote.

“Safety is our number-one priority,” said Linda Cook, an MRI spokeswoman. “We can’t help it if these shipments come in this way.”

The number of accidents nationwide 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 last incident in Kansas City, however, dates to late 2005.

The number of labs approved to handle the deadliest substances has nearly doubled to 409 since 2004. There are now 15 of the highest-security labs. Federal regulators inspect them just once every three years, unless accidents trigger more.

Reports must be submitted to regulators whenever a lab suffers a theft, loss or release of any of 72 substances known as “select agents” — a government list of germs and toxins that represent the horror stories of the world’s worst medical tragedies for humans and animals.

The Government Accountability Office said little is known about labs that aren’t federally funded or don’t work with any of the 72 substances.

“No single federal agency … is responsible for determining the risks associated with the proliferation of these labs,” said the GAO’s report, expected to be released later this week.

The House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee plans hearings Thursday on the issue. The lab incidents have sparked bipartisan concern.

“It may be only a matter of time before our nation has a public health incident with potentially catastrophic results,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who is the panel’s chairman.

Lab accidents have affected the outside world: Britain’s health and safety agency concluded there was a “strong probability” a leaking pipe at a British lab manufacturing vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease was the source of an outbreak earlier this year. Britain was forced to suspend exports of livestock, meat and milk products and destroy livestock.

Accidents aren’t the only concern.

While medical experts consider it unlikely that a lab employee will become sick and infect others, strict rules are in place to prevent theft of organisms or toxins that could be employed for bioterrorism.

The reports were so sensitive the Bush administration refused to release them under the Freedom of Information Act, citing a law aimed at preventing terrorists from locating stockpiles of poisons and learning who handles them.