Almost seven months after authorities announced that deadly bacteria had escaped from a secure lab at the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington and infected two monkeys, a federal order suspending the center’s bioterrorism research remains in place, and it could be months before it is lifted, officials say.
Last winter, authorities with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture shut down the Tulane center’s animal research into “select agents,” or pathogens that could pose an immediate and severe threat to plant, animal or human health.
Two monkeys had to be euthanized after becoming infected with Burkholderia pseudomallei, the bacterium that causes melioidosis, a potentially fatal disease, and that is seen as a potential biological weapon. A third monkey was later euthanized after showing symptoms of the disease.
The research ban can’t be lifted until federal officials are satisfied that the center’s staff has corrected the issues that led to the outbreak, including researchers neglecting to wear or improperly wearing personal protective gear when handling the bacterium.
One key to the center’s efforts to get back in federal officials’ good graces appears to have occurred in late August, when Angela Birnbaum became the center’s new biosafety officer. Birnbaum came to Tulane from Harvard, which had a primate research center of its own until university officials decided to close it earlier this year.
Birnbaum has experience dealing with the manifold regulatory programs that govern bioresearch centers, according to Michael Strecker, a Tulane spokesman.
Birnbaum’s hiring cleared a key hurdle to the resumption of Tulane’s research, said Jason McDonald, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control. At the conclusion of their investigation, CDC and USDA officials gave the primate center’s leaders a laundry list of corrections to make before the suspension could be lifted; the hiring of a new biosafety director topped the list.
CDC officials have not visited the site over the summer, but with Birnbaum in place, they plan to return and begin evaluating when to lift the suspension. However, the process could still take months, McDonald said.
Tulane also has convened a panel of experts in biosafety, infectious diseases and related fields to review the center’s operations and make recommendations on how to improve them. That review is ongoing, Strecker said.
The infected monkeys were part of the center’s breeding colony of rhesus macaques. Nearly 4,000 animals are kept in the breeding colony just south of Three Rivers Road in Covington. The animals in the colony are kept in family groups in cages, and no experiments are performed on them in that setting, officials have said.
When research calls for experiments on rhesus macaques, animals are taken away from the breeding colony for the research. The center also sends healthy macaques to other centers around the country for use in research.
The three infected monkeys and several others that were exposed to Burkholderia pseudomallei had passed through the center’s veterinary clinic, which became the focus of the investigation into how the bacterium escaped.
No specific mechanism for the escape was ever identified, but federal scientists did note several lapses in safety procedures by Primate Center scientists that could have allowed one of them to carry the bacterium on clothing from the lab to the clinic.
News of the release triggered alarm on the part of state and local officials, who immediately formed an inter-agency group to try to manage the problem. That group — called a unified command — initially published weekly reports on how animal and environmental testing at the site was progressing.
That testing has continued over the summer, though the frequency of the reports has slowed.
More than 600 soil samples taken from around the cages that housed the infected monkeys have found no evidence of the disease, said Dr. Andrew Lackner, the center’s director. And after a handful of monkeys tested positive for exposure to Burkholderia pseudomallei in the spring, no further animals have become infected. Hundreds have been tested.
In addition, state authorities have been trapping wildlife in and around the center’s 500-acre facility and testing the captured creatures for exposure. So far, 157 animals have been tested, including rats, raccoons, opossums and nutria, and 154 of them have tested negative. Three samples are still pending, according to Mike Steele, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, which is monitoring the testing.
Even though the disease appears to be contained, the effects are still being felt within the center, Lackner said.
Several researchers are extremely limited in what they can do while the pathogens they study are locked away in freezers. Some have been able to spend time catching up on data collection and analysis, but others have little to do, he said. None have lost their jobs.
The research pause also has put a dent in the center’s finances. Funding, which mostly comes from the National Institutes of Health, has dropped by $5 million or $6 million, no small amount for a center with a $30 million annual budget.
Research continues into other pathogens not classified as select agents, such as human immunodeficiency virus, tuberculosis and Lyme disease, Lackner said.
He couldn’t say, however, when the center might be able to work on select agents again.
“I don’t think it’s going to be like flipping a light switch,” he said. “It’s going to be a process. It will happen.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.