Lab accident at bioweapons facility

Lab accidents happen. Usually they happen because the technician, student or senior scientist thinks he or she is working with something safe. But they happen even if everyone knows there is dangerous stuff around. Like in a bioweapons laboratory. And when that happens, you don't want to publicize it. Even if you are required to:

An aerosol chamber mishap at Texas A&M University in February 2006 caused a researcher to be infected with the bioweapons agent brucella. Texas A&M University then violated federal law by not reporting the brucellosis case to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and now faces severe penalties. This information has only come to light as a result of persistent Texas Public Information Act requests by the Sunshine Project.


The infection incident occurred on 9 February 2006. Several A&M researchers, including Principal Investigator Thomas Ficht, were in a BSL-3 lab training in the use of the Madison Aerosol Chamber. Supervising was David McMurray, an A&M professor and self-described inventor of the chamber, who has characterized it as "foolproof".

Following a "hot" run that blew aerosolized brucella into the chamber to expose mice, researchers began clean up procedures. Using what Texas A&M now admits were inappropriate protocols, a researcher "cleaned the unit by climbing partially into the chamber to disinfect it." A&M officials later concluded that the brucella bacteria likely entered her body via her eyes as a result of this improper procedure. (This is the third instance of lab-acquired infections related to the Madison chamber that the Sunshine Project has uncovered. The others were in Seattle and New York City.)

By April 2006, the researcher had "been home sick for several weeks." Nobody apparently suspected brucellosis, despite the occupational exposure and, presumably, familiarity with its symptoms. Eventually, the researcher's personal physician ordered blood tests and made the diagnosis on about April 10. On 15 April, the infected researcher began a heavy treatment course reflecting the severity of the situation. She received a week of intravenous antibiotics followed by a 45-day course of two additional antibiotic drugs. Just over a month later, new blood tests indicated that the infection had passed. (The Sunshine Project)

So this is the story. The "foolproof" aerosol chamber was "inappropriately" cleaned and someone got sick from a bioweapons agent. Without the persistence of The Sunshine Project no one outside the lab would know about it.

The good news is two-fold: the person recovered, and the disease, brucellosis, is rarely contagious.

I'll let you figure out the bad news.

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By Ineluctable Moe (not verified) on 23 Apr 2007 #permalink

Melanie: Indeed you do. It is one of the baddest, as they say. They are probably the ones that brought us anthrax, although no one will admit to it.

And there's one in our neighborhood, the Utah desert.

Why anyone would use brucellosis as a bioweapon is beyond me.

I assume that nasty little live bacterial vaccine is still avaliabl, used to vaccinate cattle.

I guess for the affected person, the good news is that it wasn't something far worse.

Lets see,

.)makes the exposed too sick to work till finally diagnosed
.)ties up significant medical resources
.)not contageous so no worry to your troops when you invade

Sounds like a pretty good agent to me

I got one too....variola .....

This story hit the news last year and I thought that the Federalies were going to close them down completely because the protocols that they had approved were violated not once but on like 17? different occasions.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 23 Apr 2007 #permalink


I am far from an expert on undulant fever-brucellosis but did have to go on antibiotics once because of the live vaccine.

As I understand it.

.) There is a lag period between contact and active it would not stop an army.

.) relatively cheap antibiotics like tetracycline will treat it.

.) and it is infectious.

Randy: Varioloa?!?! If you know about a variola (smallpox) incident in a weapons lab you need to tell someone! This isn't known and would be incredibly dangerous. How sure are you of this?

Tom: It is a debilitating agent. Incubation period is a week or more but that's still useful for military use (few bioweapons act quickly). It is infectious but not very contagious (person to person spread rare). It can be nasty to treat. Follow the link in the post for more info.

There's a really good book called Lab 257 (available at amazon and other major stores). It's a non-fiction history/expose about Plum Island off NYC - one of the oldest and geographically relevant germ warfare/research labs. The author is a local so his sense of fear and shock comes through in the writing. Other than that, many years of old fashioned interviews, FOIA (freedom of info act), tours of the lab and other good stuff. The author draws on the overall history of the relationship between the government, science, and the USDA too.

And then there was the uh-oh moment for the Soviets in 1979 at Sverdlovsk. Which was due to yet another one of those simple stupid procedural mistakes: someone screwed up the filter maintenance.

It needs to be tattooed on the inside of people's eyelids, in fluorescent ink, that there is no such thing as routine error when doing something so non-routine as working with ultrapathogens.

We should, I suppose, count ourselves lucky that the only thing which got out of the lab in '79 was anthrax, and that there were only a few dozen localized fatalities. Given some of the other stuff that the USSR had been working on (variola among them) there would have been some nightmare scenarios.

My favorite: given how internally compartmentalized their system was, a pandemic on Soviet soil from an indigenous bioweapon might not have been recognized as an own-goal, but rather as a stealth attack. And another sector of the Red military machine might have then cranked up for a thermonuclear response against the West.

I hear the occasional plaint, from people frustrated with the nebulous adversaries of the 21st century, that they "miss the Cold War". I am not among them.

Given the choice between an elusive but not very capable enemy whose weapons are pretty much small arms and time bombs, and a well defined, easily located enemy with the capacity to literally end the world if provoked, I'll take the former every time.


Let me add one small point to the excellent items brought up so far:

There is no such thing as a "foolproof" system.

The main problem with any "foolproof" system is that it generally isn't improved upon. Meanwhile, over time, nature finds ways to make better & better fools...

Not an accident, a lab in the local area.... I had to ship some post 911 out of here. It came in two portable fridgies, both battery powered. I didnt even know it by that name but something on the side of the fridge had a name on it "Variola". I remember reading something with that name in it so I went and checked the haz guide and you could have pushed me over with a puff of wind. Wouldnt have needed to, I almost passed out from the lack of oxygen and that hot, oh, you aint going to believe this. I had to go to immediate assumption of infection protocol and call the feds and airport police. It was okay, but this is known in the military as not getting the word. They were supposed to have arranged security and the usual blah-blah but I was as nervous as a cat walking on a 220 line.

This moved the week post of 911 when all flights were grounded. Not even the forwarder involved knew about it and it had been touted as a "medical" shipment. Very nice and I wonder what they would have called explosives if that was a medical shipment. By the time it was all over I had faxes and emails from the DOT and DOD that it was okay to move it without paperwork all signed by undersecretaries and the like.

The forwarder went ballistic on them. I wonder why? Demon in the freezer.

By M.Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 24 Apr 2007 #permalink

Supervising was David McMurray, an A&M professor and self-described inventor of the chamber, who has characterized it as "foolproof".

This fellow looks untrustworthy twice in this sentence: one, he said it was foolproof; and two, if he invented it, why isn't it called a McMurray Chamber? (A suspicion furthered by the "self-described" journalistic disclaimer.) He comes off as a fool blinded by ego.

And exactly, Sam, as Douglas Adams said, the thing about idiot-proof systems is that nature will invent a better idiot.

Systems marketed as foolproof are inevitably sold with the justification that all those other expensive procedures you use to avoid disaster can now be dispensed with. Sort of risk-balancing, for an institution instead of an individual, and with marketing droids and management weenies making the balancing decisions.

By albatross (not verified) on 26 Apr 2007 #permalink