Thursday, April 14, 2005

Remember that package we sent you last week?--UPDATED

Wrong virus is shipped to labs around the world and is hopefully destroyed before it gets loose...again

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.

Blogged elsewhere.


Bob Hawkins said...

I did a post-doc at the Naval Research Laboratory in 1985-87. At one point, all government labs in the DC area were ordered to clean out any refrigerators they might have for non-official use (employee's lunches and the like). The reason: a lab in the area had their lunch refrigerator stop working. When they moved the contents to a new refrigerator, they found two bottles in the back. One was labeled "botulism," the other was labeled "smallpox."

We didn't find anything like that, but to give you an idea of how long it had been, we did find unexposed glass photographic plates. (Then there was the quart of cyanide, but that wasn't in the refrigerator, it was just on a shelf.)

shurkin said...

It's the smallpox one that really scares me. I did a book about smallpox and there are several incidents in which it leaked out of labs and killed people.