Pandora Report 7.20.14

I feel like its been a bad week, right? Between the crash—or shoot down—of MH 17 (with nearly 100 WHO HIV/AIDS researchers aboard) and events in Gaza with Israel, it sort of seems like it couldn’t get much worse. Well, turns out, it could. This week we have the first cases of Chikungunya in the U.S. and Ebola still raging. However, no one, in the biodefense world, had a worse week than the CDC.


First Chikungunya Case Acquired in the U.S. Reported in Florida

So far, in 2014, there have been 243 travel-associated cases of Chikungunya reported in 31 American states and two territories. This week, the infection numbers grew. The difference in this case, was that the man in Florida who was diagnosed, had not travelled outside the U.S. recently. This makes it the first case of the disease that had been acquired domestically.

WALB—“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working closely with the Florida Department of Health to investigate how the patient contracted the virus; the CDC said they will also monitor for additional locally acquired U.S. cases in the coming weeks and months.

“The arrival of Chikungunya virus, first in the tropical Americas and now in the United States, underscores the risks posed by this and other exotic pathogens,” said Roger Nasci, Ph.D., chief of CDC’s Arboviral Diseases Branch.”


WHO Can’t Fully Deal with Ebola Outbreak, Health Official Warns

With the death toll from the ebola outbreak in West Africa at 603 (at least), more bad news emerged this week when we learned that budget cuts to the WHO make it for difficult for the organization to respond to the ongoing medical emergency. Beyond funding issues, efforts to stem the outbreak have been hindered by some countries failure to implement the WHO’s International Health Regulations which outline methods of reporting disease outbreaks.

The LA Times—“‘The situation in West Africa should be a wake-up call to recognize that this weakening of this institution on which we all depend is not in anybody’s interest,” Scott Dowell, director of disease detection and emergency response at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a briefing in Washington. “In my view, there’s no way that WHO can respond in a way that we need it to.’”


Update on the Found Vials: There Weren’t 6; There Were 327.

In last week’s Pandora Report we learned about unsecured vials of smallpox that were found in an FDA cold storage room in a Maryland lab. This week we learned that it wasn’t just smallpox and it wasn’t just six vials—it was 327. Some of these vials contained select agents other than smallpox, like dengue, influenza, Q fever and rickettsia. Whoops!

Wired—“Here’ is the gist of the FDA’s external announcement, “…this collection was most likely assembled between 1946 and 1964 when standards for work with and storage of biological specimens were very different from those used today. All of the items labeled as infectious agents found in the collection of samples were stored in glass, heat-sealed vials that were well-packed, intact, and free of any leakage, and there is no evidence that anyone was exposed to these agents.”


Image Credit: Eduardo

Bio-error and Insider Threats: A Two-Pronged Hazard of Biodefense Research

By Chris Healey

Researchers may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria during a laboratory procedure at the CDC in Atlanta sometime between June 6 and 13. A CDC statement said established safety practices were not followed in that incident.

A follow-up statement by the CDC said risk assessment evaluations have determined anthrax exposure was unlikely. Most of the CDC employees involved have been advised to stop antibiotic and vaccine administration.

This scare marks the second anthrax mishap in little over a decade. In 2004, Scientists at Southern Research Institute in Frederick, Maryland inadvertently shipped live anthrax to colleagues in California who were expecting dead specimens.

Laboratory mistakes involving pathogens, dubbed “bio-error,” has recently acquired much media attention. To date, there have been no confirmed instances of bio-error causing illness outside the laboratory. However, another laboratory threat has materialized, one which resulted in infection and several deaths outside the laboratory almost 14 years ago.

Insider threats, or the potential for laboratory workers to exploit the dangerous material they work with to harm others, present a precarious laboratory safety problem.

Laboratory insider threats became salient after the FBI’s investigation of Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist with the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, as the suspect of the 2001 Anthrax letter attacks. Ivins worked with the anthrax strain he allegedly mailed across the United States.

Researchers working with select agents must register with the FBI and maintain a security clearance. The same requirement stood when Ivins began his work on live anthrax.

Following Ivins’ implication, a U.S. National Research Council committee and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity reviewed researcher fidelity protocols and determined revision was unnecessary. No changes to the rigor or frequency of character and fitness standards for those who work with select agents were made.

Researchers working on nuclear and radiological material are subjected to more stringent evaluations. In addition to FBI registration and security clearance maintenance, random drug testing, observations of off-duty behavior, video monitoring of laboratory activity, and annual psychological assessments are required.

Those additional fidelity evaluations have contributed to the lack of incidents among nuclear and radiological researchers. There is no known instance of a nuclear or radiological research insider causing public harm.


Image Credit: CDC