In an unprecedented step, federal officials have suspended all research on dangerous pathogens known as select agents at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in College Station after the school failed to report two cases of exposure last year.
The incidents involved the bacteria that cause brucellosis and Q fever, livestock diseases that can infect humans and are on the federal list of potential bioweapons. These pathogens are studied in highly secure labs with oversight by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. The first exposure at TAMU occurred in February 2006, when a lab worker cleaning a chamber containing brucella bacteria in a biosafety level-3 lab developed brucellosis; she recovered after treatment with antibiotics (Science, 20 April, p. 353). One month later, three other workers tested positive for antibodies to Coxiella burnetii, the bacterium that causes Q fever, but didn't become sick. The brucella exposure and details of the Q fever incident first became public in April and June of this year through documents obtained by Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a watchdog group in Austin.
TAMU admitted to CDC in April it had failed to report both incidents, but after visiting the campus, CDC inspectors weren't satisfied. In a 30 June letter, the agency told the university that research on select agents must be halted immediately while CDC conducts a "comprehensive review" to see if TAMU meets standards for handling select agents. If the university can't comply, its select agent work could be shut down and transferred to other labs, the letter says. According to CDC spokesperson Von Roebuck, this is the first time all of a university's select agent work has been suspended. The school could also face fines.
TAMU interim president Eddie J. Davis said in a statement that "we take this matter very seriously and are committed to taking all appropriate steps to ensure that we are in full compliance" with federal rules. He told reporters today that TAMU didn't think the Q fever exposures needed to be reported to CDC because the workers did not develop clinical symptoms. "There was no requirement that it be reported," he said. He also said two of the people were likely exposed before they joined the TAMU lab. Five labs with 120 workers have been shut down, he said. In addition, the principal investigator on the brucella project was suspended from the lab about a month ago.
The university is in the running for a major new agricultural biosecurity lab, the $450 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The Department of Homeland Security expects to announce a short list of potential sites for the lab this month. But Hammond of the Sunshine Project suggests TAMU's prospects aren't looking so good now. And if the university makes the list, he asks, "What does that say about the safety and security of these facilities?"