The Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington has suspended work on biological agents and toxins classified as “select agents” by the federal government after an investigator who was at the center for a few days in January tested positive Friday for antibodies related to a type of bacteria studied there.
The investigator was hospitalized after she developed symptoms she suspected may have been caused by exposure to the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, which is native to southeast Asia and Australia and causes the disease melioidosis, or Whitmore’s Disease, according to Adm. Scott Deitchman, associate director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Blood tests on the woman confirmed the presence of antibodies that the body produces after exposure to the bacterium, but further tests must be conducted to see if the antibodies are recent or due to exposure in her past. The investigator has traveled to areas of the world where the bacterium is common, Deitchman said. Melioidosis is treatable with antibiotics, he said.
The investigator was at the TNPRC to study the infections of two Rhesus macaque monkeys in November. Both of them were infected with Burkholderia pseudomallei, according to Andrew Lackner, the center’s director. One of the monkeys was euthanized; the other was treated and recovered.
The monkeys’ illness triggered a federal and state investigation because the bacterium is considered a select agent, meaning a biological agent or toxin “that could pose a severe threat to public health and plant health, or to animal or plant products,” according to the CDC website.
The category includes agents that can be weaponized, like anthrax or plague, Lackner said.
The monkeys’ infection meant the bacterium had escaped the tight controls in the Primate Center’s lab, he said.
Despite the investigation and a highly unusual Saturday evening news conference called to announce it, officials insisted there is minimal danger to the public. The news conference was called in an effort to keep the public informed, St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister said.
If the investigator was infected at the Tulane center, it would be the second time the bacterium has escaped containment at the lab, Deitchman said. During her three days at the center in January, the investigator never went into an area of the center where the bacterium is kept.
No other investigators, employees or animals have become infected, Lackner said.
Parish and state officials have reached out to the headmaster at Northlake Christian School, which is adjacent to the center, to notify the school of any developments, Brister said. State officials said they do not believe the bacterium has gotten off the grounds of the center.
Burkholderia pseudomallei is most often found in contaminated soils and water, and how it affects humans depends on how the person comes into contact with it, the CDC’s website on melioidosis says.
If the bacterium comes into contact with an open wound, for instance, it can cause pain or swelling, fever or an abscess. If it gets into the bloodstream, it can cause headache, breathing problems, joint pain and other symptoms. If it is inhaled, it can cause coughing, chest pain and other symptoms.
People with chronic health problems such as diabetes or kidney, lung or liver disease are at far more risk of dying than otherwise healthy people, the website says. The time between infection and symptoms is not clearly defined.
Investigators from the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were at the research center from Jan. 20-24 to look into how the two monkeys became ill with the bacterium, Lackner said. That investigation has not been concluded, and how the two monkeys ended up with the disease is still unknown.
Lackner said he didn’t know how the bacterium might have gotten out of the lab.
“We work with infectious agents all the time,” he said. “That’s what we do.”
The center is working or has worked at one time with anthrax, AIDS, tuberculosis, Lyme disease and any number of other pathogens, he said.
Current stocks of those select agents will be used up or destroyed, and no new shipments will be taken until the investigation is complete and any problems corrected, he said.
This is the first time something like this has happened in the 30 years the lab has been handling dangerous pathogens, Lackner said.
His attitude was shared by a lab employee who did not wish to be named because she is not authorized to speak publicly.
“We are all baffled,” she said. “There isn’t really a good picture of how this could have escaped containment. We have no clear answer to that.”
The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness has set up an incident command center in St. Tammany Parish, and officials are closely monitoring the situation, GOHSEP Director Kevin Davis said. The Department of Health and Hospitals, Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Agriculture and Forestry have representatives at the command center, he said. Federal agencies represented include the CDC, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.
The Tulane National Primate Research Lab opened in 1964. It employs about 300 people and houses some 5,000 primates on 500 acres.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.