This week it was Neisseria meningitidis–which can rapidly kill (and spread). The affected grad student diagnosed himself. Last time (2004) several researchers at BU developed tularemia, a less acute illness. The diagnosis took longer, the disease was less likely to spread, but notifying the authorities took 6 months.
The problem is that you can’t run a risk-free or mistake-free lab. People get stuck, or people inhale bugs, and sometimes they get sick. But this is another lab-acquired infection from the university with the rusting Biosafety Level 4 lab (the “National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory”)… the lab with the NIH environmental impact statement that presumed serious accidents didn’t occur. A report by the National Academy of Science on NIH’s risk assessment found it “not sound or credible.”
During World War II, when the US opened labs studying very dangerous pathogens, we knew enough to site them on offshore islands, like Plum Island off NY’s Long Island, and Horn Island off the Mississippi coast. Was that an excess of caution? Well, can you be too cautious with these bugs?
Sixty years later we throw caution to the winds. NIH wants an animal pathogen lab sited in the heart of the livestock industy, in Manhattan, Kansas. And an NIH-sponsored human pathogen lab is sited in the middle of Boston. The risk assessments are laughable, and GAO notes plenty of problems here, here and here, as recently as one month ago.
UPDATE: Thanks to Kobutsu Malone for pointing out that there have been over 100 accidents at 44 high containment labs reported to the government since 2003, many still under investigation.
Will our hubris undo us?