December 7, 2014

Anthrax, Ebola Involved In UK ‘Death Wish’ Security Lapses

Eric Hopton for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Workers in “high-security” UK labs have been accidentally exposed to some of the most deadly viruses and bacteria known to man. A whole series of more than 100 accidents or near-misses have been reported to safety regulators in the last five years, according to official reports revealed by the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

The blunders involved highly dangerous organisms including live anthrax, foot and mouth disease (FMD), and even the Ebola virus. Some of the security breaches occurred when specimens were being transferred between government facilities and the recipients were unaware of the dangers. Lab workers were unwittingly exposed to potentially lethal contamination from organisms for which there are no cures or vaccines. Failures in air handling systems and torn isolation suits also put lives at risk.

The Guardian's Ian Sample reports details the breaches, discovered in documents it obtained from the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Over 70 of the incidents were deemed serious enough for the HSE to set up investigations. In many cases, enforcement letters, or crown prohibition notices (CPN), were issued ordering the temporary closure of the labs involved. In the worst breaches legal action was taken.

Given the lethal nature of the diseases involved - some of them traveling round the country via unsuspecting carriers - the potential for serious outbreaks and risk to the public is alarming.

Sample asked Professor Richard Ebright, a US biosafety expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey, to review the reports. Ebright said that “taken together, they revealed failures in procedures, infrastructure, training and safety culture at some British labs” and added “Does British agriculture have a death wish?”

HSE records document 116 incidents, but The Guardian believes that there are other undisclosed investigations which HSE is unable to report due to the possibility of legal action.

Some of the worst incidents tell a sorry tale of human error, equipment failures, poor control, training and handling. In one of the most serious cases, at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in Surrey, England, scientists sent out live anthrax instead of harmless heat-treated samples. One of the labs that received the deadly samples opened the tubes in a lab without the correct security and scientists worked on the live samples without adequate protection. This incident occurred in May 2012 and the lab was closed after a rapid investigation. The Guardian points out the irony of this incident, as the UK had stockpiled anthrax vaccines due to fears of terrorist attacks at the London Olympics. In the end, it wasn’t terrorists who put the British people at risk; it was the government’s own facilities.

Though no lab workers were infected as a result of any of the breaches, there was a very real risk to a number of workers. These incidents recall a worryingly similar situation in the US in June when scientists working in a high security lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, sent out batches of live anthrax bacteria.

In a separate incident at the APHA lab, staff had been exposed to Mycobacterium bovis, the organism that causes TB in cattle and can cause serious illness in humans. The wrong equipment was used to destroy the bacteria. The Guardian claims that Management had failed to act when staff raised concerns and one worker later tested positive for the infection.

These incidents are serious enough in themselves, but one big concern is that there may be many more which go unreported due to what Sample describes as “A culture of blame makes people hide their mistakes.”

Predictably, the government body which is ultimately responsible for these facilities, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), drew in the ladders and, in standard defense mode, emphasized its general commitment to security without truly addressing the issues raised by The Guardian.

A spokesperson for DEFRA, which funds the APHA, said “UK animal disease laboratories are nationally and internationally recognized for their expertise, playing a crucial role in the swift diagnosis of notifiable disease, as shown in the recent avian flu outbreak. As with any laboratory, improvements in procedures are continually made and we always follow HSE advice.”

These breaches and security failings are subject to discreet investigations and rarely hit the headlines. If the public in the UK and the US, or anywhere in the world where such research takes place, were fully aware of the extent of the problems and dangers, there would surely be a greater demand for improved procedures and openness. The Guardian’s revelations move us a little further towards that awareness but the fact remains that we are all at risk from the poor control of security of research into deadly infectious diseases.


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