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CDC suspends Texas A&M bioweapons research


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suspended Texas A&M University’s federal research on some infectious diseases after two cases in which the school failed to report researchers’ exposure to bioweapons agents.

In a memo sent Saturday, the CDC questioned whether Texas A&M meets safety standards and has an appropriate security plan. It also said federal officials will visit the campus this month to review records and interview key researchers.

“We plan to cooperate fully with the CDC and look forward to resolving this matter in an appropriate manner as quickly as possible, so that we can move forward in our work supporting the nation’s homeland defense initiatives,” A&M interim President Eddie Davis said in a statement.

The CDC letter threatened to permanently revoke A&M’s authority to work with “select agents,” the most serious and infectious, if researchers don’t follow federal guidelines.

Texas A&M heads the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense, which is funded by an $18 million U.S. Department of Homeland Security biodefense research grant.

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 Sunshine Project watchdog group, said he’s never before heard of a similar CDC ban.

He predicted it will hurt the university’s effort to host the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a federal lab the Department of Homeland Security will award in 2008.

“How could any government agency in good conscience put an institution in A&M’s situation in charge of what’s going to be one of the largest biodefense labs in the world?” Hammond said.

The brucella and Q fever incidents have been under investigation by the CDC and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general since April.

Mike McKinney, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, said he expects some resolution by the end of the month. He said he supports the CDC’s research ban.

“I’m one of those who says, when you find a problem, you ought to take care of it,” McKinney said. “I have a whole bunch of frustration, but it’s not with the CDC.”

McKinney said one researcher in the Brucella lab has been suspended.

He said he has initiated an investigation into the university’s protocols and why the suspected infections occurred and weren’t reported.

Information from: The Dallas Morning News,

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