More than three weeks after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that two monkeys at the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington had been infected by Burkholderia pseudomallei, a bacterium tightly controlled by the federal government and classified as one that could pose “a severe threat to public health and safety,” Tulane officials had not notified local officials about the problem.
In fact, St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister didn’t learn about the monkeys’ infection until she was asked about it by a reporter Jan. 16. That same day, someone in her office called center Director Andrew Lackner and was told about the monkeys — a breakdown in communication that Brister said she is confident wouldn’t happen again.
“Every incident, we learn things,” she said.
While she refused to directly criticize the way Tulane handled the situation, she left little doubt that she didn’t expect any future events to be conducted the same way. “That won’t happen again,” she said.
Brister said she is convinced that everyone involved now understands how important it is to keep state and local agencies involved from the earliest stages of a problem.
To that end, there is now a daily 9 a.m. conference call to discuss any developments in this case. State agencies such as the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness have set up an incident command center in the parish and are helping to coordinate efforts to find out what happened and how it can be prevented in the future.
The situation grew more serious late last week when an investigator who had been at the center Jan. 20-22 reported symptoms she suspected might be connected to infection by the same bacterium. That investigator checked herself into a hospital in her hometown, and blood tests revealed antibodies for Burkholderia pseudomallei.
The investigator has traveled to areas of the world where the bacterium is common, and the antibodies could be a remnant of that rather than the result of her visit to the Covington center, according to Adm. Scott Deitchman, of the CDC. The investigator will be retested in a week or so, and the results could tell officials whether she came into contact with the bacteria while at the center. But out of an abundance of caution, Brister and other officials decided to call an unusual Saturday evening news conference and announce that a human being may have been infected at the research center.
The CDC classifies Burkholderia as a “select agent,” meaning one of various “biological agents and toxins that could pose a severe threat to public health and safety.” Other select agents include anthrax, plague and other pathogens that could be weaponized. But it’s not easy to get infected with Burkholderia pseudomallei: Individuals must come into direct contact with it, inhale it or somehow get it into their bloodstream. If a person is infected with the bacterium, the disease can be treated with antibiotics.
Because the monkeys’ infection meant that the bacterium had escaped the containment at the research center’s lab, the CDC ordered Tulane to suspend all research into Burkholderia pseudomallei and any other select agents.
Stocks of any “select agents” at the research center have been placed into secure storage or were destroyed when the suspension began, Tulane spokesman Mike Strecker said.
The two monkeys were part of the center’s breeding colony, not part of any research having to do with Burkholderia pseudomallei, and neither had come into contact with the scientists working on the bacterium, Strecker said. The investigator who may have been infected did not enter the lab where the bacterium was kept and did not come into contact with the monkeys either, officials said.
University officials considered there was no threat to public safety and chose not to notify others about the infection and the CDC’s response, Strecker said. University officials did tell the CDC, as federal regulations required, and they relied on CDC officials to notify state authorities, Strecker said.
A CDC spokesman confirmed that state officials had been notified on Dec. 22 but refused to say which agencies were notified.
Three weeks after the CDC confirmed the cause of the monkeys’ infections, a caller to WWL-TV told the station about them, and reporter Ashley Rodrigue asked Brister’s office about it Jan. 16.
This was the first Brister had heard of the infection of the two monkeys, and her office called Lackner to confirm the problem. WWL-TV ran a short piece on the monkeys that night.
Not until the next day, Jan. 17, did Tulane officials notify nearby Northlake Christian School and the neighborhoods that are close to the center.
Federal investigators were at the center from Jan. 20-24, and that investigation continues, a CDC spokesman said. There is no timetable for its completion, because every investigation is different, he added.
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to make sure the bacterium doesn’t get outside the grounds of the center.
The Environmental Protection Agency has set up three air monitors at the center, water samples have been collected and soil samples will be taken as well. The typical method of infection is through tainted water or soil, officials said.
All samples are being sent to the CDC in Atlanta for testing, and the results should be ready in five to seven days, according to a news release Monday by Brister spokesman Ronnie Simpson.
The CDC is also providing guidance at the center on the use of personal protective equipment and safety standards, as well as investigating the original infection.
The state’s Office of Public Health is collecting blood samples from all the staff at the center for testing, the release said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.