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U.S. bio-security blunder as pathogen is released from lab

The incident happened at the Tulane National Primate Center in Louisiana. The bacterium in question is Burkholderia pseudomallei. The organism is classified as a potential bioterror agent, and it was for this reason that the research was being conducted (to determine the risk if the organism was used against the U.S.)

B. pseudomallei infection in humans is called melioidosis. The mortality of melioidosis is 20 to 50 percent, even with treatment. Symptoms include cough or pleuritic chest pain (as with pneumonia), bone or joint pain suggestive of osteomyelitis or septic arthritis, or cellulitis.

Although the bacterium is potentially a hazard to humans, laboratory officials have stated that there is no risk to the public. However, the issue seems to have arisen after more than 175 monkeys that were potentially exposed to a bioterror bacteria inside a lab complex were returned to their outdoor cages before officials knew a deadly pathogen was on the loose.

Despite these assurances, according to USA Today four rhesus monkeys kept in outdoor pens became sick, resulting in two needing to be euthanized. Moreover, a federal inspector (from the U.S. Department of Agriculture) was taken sick shortly after visiting the facility. It is unknown at this stage if there is a direct relationship between these illnesses and the bio-security issue.

It also stands that as a result of this incident, work on select agents has been suspended. Among the numerous questions surrounding the safety breach are whether the USDA investigator was infected by B. pseudomallei or during a recent trip abroad, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Tulane facility has sent samples to the CDC from more than 340 monkeys that either spent time in the veterinary hospital or that had lived with animals in large outdoor cages.

Quoted by Microbiology World, Richard Ebright, a biosafety expert from Rutgers University in New Jersey, said: “The fact that they can’t identify how this release occurred is very concerning.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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