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Bio-threats a Go Go!

July 6, 2007

biohazardBioweapons research is a natural outgrowth of our desire to mitigate, eliminate and/or respond properly to a bioterrorist attack. Toward this end, the CDC has funded and regulated several bio-agent labs across the country. Each lab is given a designation ranging from BSL-1 to BSL-4, based upon the type of agent that is being worked with – higher numbers relate to more potentially dangerous agents. For example, there was some concern about the plans to build a BSL-4 lab in downtown Boston a few years ago. A typical BSL-3 lab would work on agents such as hantavirus, Yellow Fever virus, and Q-fever.

There is a BSL-3 lab at Texas A&M that’s been having some trouble lately, both with containment and reporting. Finally, work has ceased at the lab, but the story behind this is quite scary and will hopefully serve as a lesson to all bioweapons researchers going forward.

I first heard about the Texas A&M bio-research facility from Revere at Effect Measure. This post detailed a breach of containment in which a researcher contracted brucellosis, a rarely contagious zoonotic infection that usually causes influenza-like illness and can have lasting effects. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the PI on the study failed to report the infection for a year!

As the saying goes, no news is good news, and in bioweap0ns research, all news is bad news. Well, Texas A&M was in the news again, and while the agent may have changed, the punch-line stayed the same.

Once again, Revere alerted us first here. It seems that in April 2006, three researchers became infected with Q-fever, an agent similar to brucellosis in its presentation, however it isn’t contagious but is highly infectious. Once again, the PI failed to report the infection for almost a year.

Now, I may just silly blogger, but to me, this signals a pattern. And apparently the CDC agrees with me. It is unfortunate, however, that four dedicated researchers had to become infected with potentially life-altering diseases in order to shutter this facility.

Noah Shachtman, of the blog, Danger Room, passes along a interest thought about the new bioweapons research money train that might have brought these infections to life. Bugs ‘n’ Gas Gal writes:

Universities, consortia, and even private organizations are climbing over one another trying to get government money to work with biological agents. Is it because we need this, or because that’s what the government is funding these days? Does the actual risk warrant this? I would say not, and this is supported by the meager historical data on bioterrorism incidents and biological warfare. One point that is often brought up is the concern that with the great expansion of scientists working with weaponizable agents since 9/11, we are probably training a few bad apples. Again, this is a valid concern although I believe the risk is again small. I hate to sound like a broken record but we need to reassess our risk and compare it to the hype. Which one have we been reacting to since 9/11? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for labs that are working on public health – infectious disease work that would be beneficial to countering biological attacks but primarily is focused on a current public health issue. But biodefense specifically, I think we have more than enough focus and funding on.

I’ve complained about the push to make all public health preparedness efforts into “homeland security” efforts for funding streams, but I think that Bugs ‘n’ Gas Gal might have said it better than I ever could. Welcome to the blogroll, love.

More resources here. BGG post here.

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