Federal authorities are investigating the cases of four Texas A&M University researchers who tested positive for exposure to bioweapons agents last year and the school’s delay in reporting the incidents.
Three researchers tested positive for exposure to the weapons agent Q fever in April 2006, two months after another researcher fell ill from contact with the another agent, Brucella, according to documents obtained by an Austin-based bioweapons watchdog group.
University officials waited one year to report the Brucella case to the Centers for Disease Control. The Q fever case still has not been reported. Federal law requires quick reporting of incidents.
The diseases, while rarely fatal in humans, cause high fevers and flulike symptoms. Both are difficult to cure.
There was little danger of an outbreak. Transmission of Q fever between humans is rare, and it hasn’t happened with Brucella.
Edward Hammond, director of the watchdog group the Sunshine Project, said the exposure could indicate a broader problem in bioweapons research.
“A lot of this is done on an ad hoc, and sometimes even unsafe, basis,” Hammond said.
In a written statement, Texas A&M Executive Vice President and Provost Jerry R. Strawser said the university is awaiting a CDC response on the investigations.
“In response to this unfortunate incident, we have greatly strengthened our safety, training and reporting procedures,” he said.
Von Roebuck, a CDC spokesman, said the agency is still investigating the Q fever exposure and has passed on the Brucella investigation to the Health and Human Services inspector general.
Federal rules require those researching pathogens to report incidents within seven days of their discovery. Fines or penalties for not filing are determined by the Health and Human Services inspector general and could result in lost federal funding.
The Brucella incident happened during an experiment to expose mice to the agent. The researcher climbed into a chamber to disinfect it, a procedure that documents indicate has since changed. She was infected through her eyes, researchers believe, and was home sick for several weeks.
There were no details about how the three researchers were exposed to Q fever.
The Sunshine Project came across the infections while researching universities vying to host the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. Texas A&M is among the applicants for the homeland security project.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
– Associated Press
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