March 24, 2009
Geneva/Chicago. Lab accidents involving bird flu and Ebola viruses have increased biosecurity fears in Europe, where public health experts say research on dangerous pathogens needs to be more strictly monitored. A scientist in Germany last week pricked herself with a needle that was believed to be contaminated with a strain of the Ebola hemorrhagic virus with a mortality rate of around 90 percent. She is still under observation in the hospital. That accident added to public health concerns following the recent disclosure that deadly H5N1 bird flu virus samples were mixed with seasonal flu samples at a Baxter International contracted laboratory in Austria. Health authorities and industry groups reviewing European lab safety standards concluded in a new report that scientists and managers needed to be better trained in ways to prevent, handle and report such incidents.
While stressing that research on viruses and pathogens is important for vaccine, drug and diagnostic development, the group Biosafety Europe said “it also represents a risk to the population in case those organisms may spread in the environment due to a laboratory accident, poor laboratory practices or intentional removal and subsequent release [terrorist attack].” “Adequate technical and physical containment measures and best biosafety and biosecurity practices must be implemented in those facilities to prevent accidental or intentional release of dangerous pathogens,” it said in the recommendations.
Security experts say viruses and other biological agents could be used as weapons, as occurred in 2001 in the United States when envelopes containing anthrax were sent to media outlets and US lawmakers, killing five people. Baxter spokesman Chris Bona said the Illinois-based company learned in February about the H5N1 contamination, which was due to “a combination of process, technical and human error.” The flu virus samples were meant only for testing and not vaccine or product development, according to the spokesman, who said Baxter has “put corrective measures in place” after the accident but declined to give details “for proprietary reasons.”
All 37 people exposed to the mixture at subcontractor sites in Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, and at AVIR Greenhills Biotechnology, an Austrian company that bought the samples, tested negative for H5N1 bird flu, Bona said. The World Health Organization fears that the virus, which has killed 256 people since 2003, could trigger a deadly flu pandemic if it mutates and starts to spread more easily. Biosafety Europe’s project coordinator, Kathrin Summermatter, said that better training and more collaboration on safety standards could help reduce pathogen risks in European labs.