April 14, 2005
Add to the list of good intentions gone awry: Periodically, the College of American Pathologists (CAP) sends a package to labs around the world containing unidentified pathogens. The recipients are supposed to test the contents and report back. That’s how the college tests the labs; if you identified it correctly, you are doing fine. If you don’t, your lab needs attention. The CAP kits are sent out from a private contractor, Meridian Bioscience in Cincinnati. Somebody at Meridian goofed and sent out a package containing one of history’s most deadly influenza vaccines. No one is supposed to get hurt doing these tests and in well-run labs, the pathogens do not get loose. But, they did, by accident at the Canadian National Microbiology lab in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, and it contaminated a sample in a lab. An alert technician discovered the contamination and the lab, one of Canada’s best, had no trouble identifying it as the flu that caused the Asian flu pandemic in 1957 that killed millions around the world, an H2N2 virus. The virus evolved into another type in a year, as flu viruses do very well, and we now get sick from something else. What makes this serious is twofold: no one born after 1958 has any immunity to this potentially deadly virus, and the virus is not used in vaccines since it no longer poses a threat. If the virus could escape from a lab as good as the one in Winnipeg, it could get away from other labs. All that has to happen is that it infects one lab worker, who goes home, goes shopping, gets on a plane or otherwise insures transportation and contagion. At the request of the World Health Organization, labs around the world are now busy destroying their samples, autoclaving them to cinder. So far, there have been no reports of an escape. Interestingly, Canada and most other countries classify the virus as Type 3, meaning it requires the very high security precautions. In the U.S., it is only Type 2. That classification is now being reassessed. And, incidentally, the 1957 pandemic began with birds in Asia, just as one seems to be forming now.
UPDATE--The World Health Organization says that all of the virus samples have now been destroyed.