The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently ordered researchers at Texas A&M University to suspend work with certain disease agents and toxins because of safety and security concerns.
The CDC regulates select agents and toxins that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety. Security issues at TAMU came to light in the spring after the Sunshine Project, a watchdog group, filed requests for public information. The records indicated that a university laboratory worker had an occupational exposure to a Brucella bacterium in February 2006 during experiments under Thomas A. Ficht, PhD, a professor of veterinary pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
The university didn't report the incident to the CDC until April 2007, after the inquiry from the Sunshine Group. From April 16-18, CDC inspectors reviewed some of the facilities where TAMU stores disease agents and toxins. The inspectors noted numerous and serious deficiencies in biosafety and biosecurity. On April 20, the CDC issued a cease-and-desist order suspending work with Brucella species at TAMU.
On June 30, following the university's responses to the inspection, the CDC expanded the TAMU cease-and-desist order to all select agents and toxins. The CDC's concerns included whether TAMU has a plan to prevent unauthorized access to select agents and toxins and whether the university has a program that provides effective medical surveillance of occupational exposures to select agents and toxins.
From July 23-27, the CDC conducted a comprehensive site review. On Aug. 31, the CDC released a 21-page report and extended the suspension of work with select agents and toxins until the university addresses the issues in the report.
One of the problems was that TAMU researchers were studying Brucella species and Coxiella burnetii, the latter of which can cause Q fever, without prior approval from the CDC. The CDC found increased serologic titers for Q fever in 17 percent of personnel who had been in laboratories where researchers were studying C burnetii.
The CDC also noted problems at the university with internal inspections, biosafety manuals, containment procedures, facility conditions, training programs, and inventory records. Some of these problems were specific to the Veterinary Medical Park. The CDC identified concerns with Dr. Ficht and three other principal investigators.
The Sunshine Project has posted copies of relevant CDC and TAMU documents at www.sunshine-project.org. At press time, the cease-and-desist order for work with select agents and toxins remained in effect.