Texas A&M University failed to report in a timely manner to Federal authorities that a biology student was stricken with the dangerous brucella pathogen in its College Station laboratory for bioweapons agent research on February 9th of 2006.
The university made its disclosure this April 10th, 14 months later, and only after insistent prodding by the Sunshine Project, an Austin, Tex.-based arms control watchdog organization. Under Federal law, such incidents are supposed to be reported within seven days to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
The student, thought to be a woman, was seriously ill for several months with brucellosis but recovered. The disease is believed to kill between two to three percent of those it infects. The student, whose name and gender has not been disclosed by Texas A&M to Sunshine, apparently came down with the disease, also known as undulant fever, attempting to clean what is called a Madison Aerosol Chamber(MAC) where mice had been exposed to aerosolized brucella particles.
The accident occurred in a lab under the supervision of Texas A&M professor David McMurray, inventor of the (MAC). According to Sunshine, the case of the stricken student is the third report of a serious illness in connection with the chamber’s use. On one occasion, a leaky aerosol chamber was responsible for three tuberculosis infections in a Seattle lab in 2004.
The MAC is used to infect animals with disease through their lungs. Cultures of the organisms causing tuberculosis, or the bioweapons agents brucella, anthrax, or Q fever, are placed in the MAC’s nebulizer, which mixes them with the air. The resulting aerosol is directed into a metal chamber in which animals placed on racks breathe in the agent. The Texas A&M work is being funded by the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) and the National Institutes of Health(NIH).Texas A&M’s professor Thomas Ficht is the Principal Investigator.
E-mails that Texas A&M finally released to Sunshine late on Tuesday night (April 10) reveal the University broke federal law by not reporting the infection, Sunshine’s Edward Hammond said. The Select Agent Rule required A&M to report the infection immediately upon its discovery and for the school to file a formal report, called APHIS/CDC Form 3, within 7 days. Failure to do so means Texas A&M could face fines of up to $750,000 and lose Federal funding for its research.
Asked if the university had delayed reporting the accident, Ficht replied, “I’m not supposed to talk to anybody about that, not now,” and referred this reporter to a school public relations official. Ficht is well known in his field and holds both a 2000 Pfizer Research Award and a 2004 Sigma Xi Research Award.
Calls to the Texas A&M public information office have not be returned.
In recent years, Texas A&M has received between $284,000 and $363,000 annually from the NIH just for brucella research, Hammond said, but the overall NIH funding is “much higher.”
How much Texas A&M gets from DHS is not known.
“The evidence released to us indicates that Texas A&M officials discussed the federal requirement to report the incident, yet they did not do so,” Hammond said. “They chose to ignore the law, and that irresponsible decision to endanger public health and security should be swiftly and severely punished with maximum fines and loss of federal research funding.”
In refusing to provide information about the infection, Texas A&M officials also flouted the Texas Public Information Act, Hammond said. He said Sunshine is filing a complaint with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott that may result in other fines and/or jail sentences if school officials are found guilty of hiding documents.
Sunshine obtained its information from the school only after formally requesting records under the Texas Public Information Act. In recent years, several Texas universities, including Texas A&M, have attempted to conceal their biological laboratory work from public scrutiny.
According to Sunshine, the universities of Texas at Arlington and San Antonio and the University of Texas Southwestern at Dallas are obligated under NIH guidelines to have their internal oversight committees report on their biological lab work to NIH but declined to do so. And Texas A&M’s oversight committee did not report the brucella episode, Hammond said.
The work of the Texas universities, like that of approximately 400 other Federally-funded labs across the nation, may involve pathogens that could possibly be used for offensive germ warfare, banned by the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention(BTWC), which the U.S. signed. It prohibits “development, production, stockpiling, and use of microbes or their poisonous byproducts except in amounts necessary for protective and peaceful research.”
According to Professor Francis A. Boyle, an international legal expert at the University of Illinois at Champaign, “Aerosolization and an aerosol chamber are a classic tip-off for the prohibited research, development and testing of an offensive biological weapon in violation of the (BTWC) and its U.S. domestic implementing legislation, the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which provides for life in prison.” Boyle wrote the 1989 Act, passed unanimously by both Houses of Congress. He is also author of “Biowarfare and Terrorism,” published by Clarity Press.