Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Infectious Incompetence

In response to the disturbing release of the A/H2N2 influenza virus by Meridian, POGO offers a rundown of recent lab accidents involving pathogens. Plague baccili transported in suitcases, accidental TB infections...it all makes for comforting bedtime reading.

But POGO's focus on US accidents means they left out some other exciting cases, like the accidental smallpox release that led the head of a British research facility to slash his own throat. And the hapless Australian researchers who tried to engineer a contraceptive for mice, and inadvertantly created an deadly form of mousepox that was able to overcame the animal's natural genetic resistance. Plus,unless I'm mistaken, there have been at least three overseas lab accidents involving SARS.

One of the many unfortunate things about BushCo's robotic fixation on "biodefense" is that it's increased the number of labs working with these pathogens - and encouraged irresponsible genetic engineering experiments - and has thus increased the risk of a catastrophic accident. Here's a map of high-containment biodefense labs in operation as of November 2004. Rest assured that many more are on BushCo's wishlist.

You'll be glad to know that the WaPo is concerned about lab safety, in its usual tepid way:

[A]fter three weeks no one at CDC is yet able to explain whether Meridian put this particular strain of virus in its testing samples knowingly or by accident. Meridian does not respond to questions. CDC spokesmen say the agency is "working on" coming up with an explanation, but they point out that it has no mandate to monitor lab safety. It appears that this strange accident falls through the cracks of regulation. The virus in question is not classified as a "select agent," the misuse of which would be a criminal offense, although it may eventually be reclassified that way.
Regarding "select agent" classification, Effect Measure points out yet again how the tunnel-vision focus on biodefense scenarios is leading us to make stupid decisions:
The third, and perhaps most important question, relates to why H2N2 is handled under biosafety level 2 (BSL 2) conditions in the US ("good laboratory practice") but requires BSL 3 protection in Canada (use of safety cabinets and other protections). CDC Director Gerberding explained that because influenza isn't a bioterrorist agent, it did not receive the proper attention. Besides showing unbelievable stupidity, incompetence and a blind sense of misplaced priorities, we note that despite Canada's pleas and WHO's dismay the US has still not taken the required step of classifying H2N2 as a BSL 3 agent....
Getting back to the WaPo editorial, I find it irritating in that it simply questions whether enough safety precautions are in place, without questioning whether research of this type is wise or necessary:
[I]f the relatively free exchange of such materials is to continue, safety standards need to be updated more regularly, and everyone needs to be much clearer about what those standards are.
This is a remarkably vague and casual sentiment, I think. And I dislike its implication that unethical, wasteful, stupid, and dangerous research is acceptable as long as everyone takes the proper precautions. Open-air vulnerability testing is fine, by this logic, so long as a "harmless" organism is used. It seems to me that flawed research programs often lead to flawed practices; the massive influx of taxpayer dollars into this field is very likely to make a bad situation worse.


Phila said...

if Had applied myself, maybe, I could have made something out of my life

You and me both, pal. You're talking to one of the biggest fuck-ups in the Western world.

Thanks for the rant!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the friendly critique and the additional information. Keep it up!

-Nick Schwellenbach
POGO investigator

Revere said...

There is an important distinction to make between the designation of safety level (Biosafety Level 2 versus 3) and designation as a "Select Agent." The latter is for bioterrorism agents and carries with it serious red tape that restricts and impedes research. H5N1 almost received a dmaging "select agent" listing but the complaints of flu researchers got it reversed (see my earlier post back in January, Bird flu: select agents and red tape.

The WaPo Editorial doesn't get it, naturally. They rarely do. And now CDC has just released a "reorganization" whose goal is to deal with their "two overarching goals," bioterrorism and the rest of public health. Jeez.