Every once in awhile we read about a breech in the security of biomedical laboratories.

Sometimes these are serious, such as when the Ebola like Marburg virus outbreak in German lab workers that killed seven people in 1967). But many barely make the front pages.

The latest outbreak from biomedical laboratories occurred at the esteemed CDC laboratory in Atlanta last year, when several people came down with Q fever.

Now, even though I have worked most of my US jobs in rural areas, I’ve never seen a case of Q fever, which is one of those diseases you can catch from cattle and sheep. On the other hand, it’s symptoms are not really specific, and many cases are mild, so who knows if I’ve seen cases and misdiagnosed them?

Q fever is treatable, with Doxycycline or other Tetracycline medicines, an antibiotic mainly used to treat acne, not high fevers, so it is important to keep one’s level of suspicion high. On the other hand, when we lived in Oklahoma, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever was common, so ever high fever got Doxycycline and a recheck in a few days. Like Q fever, most cases were probably mild, but people could die if they didn’t get treatment.

Well, anyway, Q fever is spread several ways: including eating contaminated meat, by touching infected animals, or by inhaling the bacteria which has a nasty habit of staying around for a long time. What doesn’t usually happen is person to person spread.

This is why Q fever is one of the worries on bioterrorism: You can infect a lot of people and make them sick easily, but there isn’t much danger of a world wide epidemic coming back to kill your own people.

And yes, there is a vaccine for the disease.

So anyway, the CDC has Q fever laboratories in Atlanta, and they are “level three”: not the highest level. Usually this means you work under a hood (sort of inside a box) with negative pressure that keeps the germs from floating into your face. Such hoods are common in most hospital labs, and are essentially vacuum cleaners that suck air out one hole so it doesn’t spread. We even have “negative pressure” rooms in hospitals to treat Tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses, so the germs don’t spread.

But in this case, the negative pressure failed, or someone didn’t follow procedure, because some people came down with Q fever.

From the Atlanta JournalConstitution:

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new $214 million infectious disease laboratory in Atlanta, scientists are conducting experiments on bioterror bacteria in a room with a containment door sealed with duct tape.

The tape was applied around the edges of the door a year ago after the building’s ventilation system malfunctioned and pulled potentially contaminated air out of the lab and into a “clean” hallway.

Nine CDC workers were tested in May 2007 for potential exposure to the Q fever bacteria being studied in the lab, CDC officials said this week in response to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

So, in a multimillion dollar lab, they fixed the leak with duct tape.

But the worrisome part is the third paragraph: they did not notify the public, and only revealed the problem when local reporters got wind of the problem.

All this makes me wonder.

There was a “Foot and Mouth disease” outbreak in the UK that made local farm animals sick.

There was a Boston lab accident in 2005 that gave some workers Tularemia.

There was a Q fever outbreak at a Texas lab in 2006.

Two lab related outbreaks of SARS occurred in Asia in 2004.

So there are a lot of questions about that duct tape, and not only that the lab problems weren’t made public at the time….and if you read the excellent AJC article, they point out that the duct tape is only a secondary sealant for the doors and is probably not needed when the ventillation is working correctly.

But one suspects that for every report that manages to get into the papers, there are other breeches of safety that don’t get reported or publicized…

And this link has a list of various lab accidents, including those with infectious diseases..and remember, if there is a fire or explosion, that too can result in a disease being spread…and remember, many of these labs are all over the world, including in areas where procedures might not be a stringent as in the US, Europe, or major Asian cities.

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Thanks for the “headsup” from MikeTheMadBiologistBlog.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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