Fears are growing over safety standards at US science laboratories set up after the 2001 attacks to handle some of the world's deadliest toxins. Jon Marcus reports. Laboratories at Texas A&M University, midway between Dallas and Houston, were buzzing. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the university had set out to take advantage of the hundreds of millions of dollars being lavished on research into counteracting microbes and toxins that could be used in biological attacks.
Labs where some of the world's most dangerous materials are being studied had been built so quickly all over the US that they were largely self- policing. Although Congress had passed laws severely restricting access to these facilities - barring illegal aliens from the labs, for instance, along with legal residents from countries believed to harbour terrorists, and requiring that toxins be meticulously registered - government safety inspections were scheduled only about once every three years.
So when a worker in the busy Texas A&M laboratory reported a fever, anaemia and body pain, the university kept the case quiet. Blood tests showed that she had contracted brucellosis, an animal disease also known as Malta fever, first diagnosed by British doctors in 1850 during the Crimean War and caused by the bacterium Brucella , which the lab was studying.
Although never authorised to work with Brucella , the woman had been infected when she leaned into an aerosol chamber to clean it. The university never reported the case, which was uncovered only by an independent non-governmental organisation which obtained public records documents relating to the incident.
Three other researchers in the lab were later found to have been exposed to another animal disease, Q fever, which can cause high fevers, severe headaches, malaise, myalgia, confusion and chest pain. University officials didn't report those cases either. A mouse infected with Q fever was also missing, other documents disclosed, and a fourth lab worker was later also found to have been exposed to Q fever antibodies.
Subsequent investigations have found that more than 100 such incidents have occurred across the US since 2003 - nearly 40 of them in the first eight months of this year alone - including shipments of infectious agents going missing.
Research facilities themselves reported 51 possible releases of contamination, 22 at universities. Only the operators of the laboratories know whether this is "the tip of the iceberg", Keith Rhodes, a toxicologist for the investigative arm of Congress, told a congressional committee this month.
No government agency even keeps track of the number of labs that are working with infectious materials beyond the 409 that handle any of the 72 germs and toxins designated by the Government as "select agents" (those that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety), Mr Rhodes said.
Uncounted numbers of other laboratories experimenting with deadly diseases such as hantavirus, Dengue fever and severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which are not on the list, are relied on to report any accidents that occur. And as Congressman Bart Stupak, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee, observed, the case of Texas A&M might indicate that the periodic lab inspections that the Government carried out might not be "as thorough as one might hope".
A doubling in the number of US laboratories working with deadly pathogens - such as those causing Lassa and Ebola fevers, and the anthrax bacterium - followed the anthrax attacks that killed five people shortly after 9/11. The attacks - spores were posted to several media offices and to two US senators - sparked demands for vaccines to respond to bioterrorism. Another 4 million square feet of biocontainment laboratory space is planned.
Before 2001, there were five so-called Biosafety 4 labs, built to contain the most dangerous known organisms, including one at Georgia State University and one at the Centers for Disease Control, both in Atlanta. Nine more such labs have been approved in the past five years, four of them at universities. The most controversial is being built by Boston University in a densely populated, largely low-income neighbourhood, despite widespread opposition. Slightly less secure laboratories, called Biosafety 3 labs, have gone up even more quickly, and there are now more than 1,300. No one knows the exact number.
The fear is not only that laboratory workers might be at risk. People who live near these labs are threatened by a potential leak of deadly germs. Rather than making Americans safer than they were before 2001, as had been intended, congressional investigator Rhodes told Congress that the labs may be making Americans less secure.
In June, for instance, lightning hit the Biosafety 4 lab at the Centers for Disease Control, where faulty wiring prevented a backup power system from kicking in and stopping the release of contaminated air. The lab was not being used at the time of the incident, and agency officials said its design would have prevented air from escaping, although the congressional investigators dispute this. Stupak also cited evidence that an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK had resulted from the improper design of a containment laboratory, raising more questions about lab safety.
"There are plenty of reasons to be worried," said Joe Barton, a congressman and alumnus of Texas A&M. He said the fact that the Government encouraged secrecy in bioterrorism research made it easier for universities and other laboratory operators to conceal problems.
"We might need this secrecy for our own protection, but it can also let bad habits go unnoticed," he said.
Something else that makes it easier for problems to go unreported is the Government's inspection procedure, which consists of auditing laboratory records during infrequent pre-announced visits. Attention from Congress has led officials to review this policy and consider random surprise inspections.
The Government has also started levying large fines for breaches of security at university research labs. The University of California, for example, was fined $3 million (£1.47 million), the largest civil penalty ever imposed by the US Department of Energy, after large amounts of classified information were discovered to have been taken from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which the university administered at the time. The secret documents, along with four computers filled with classified data from the lab, were found during a drugs raid at the home of a lab employee.
As for Texas A&M, it faces up to $500,000 in fines and a suspension of government funding worth $6 million a year. All biodefence research there has been halted. The interim president says he hopes to have permission to reopen the laboratories by December. He will need to find a new vice- president for research, since the one who was in charge during the alleged cover-up has since resigned. Criminal penalties are also possible.