Probe of Tulane primate lab blames lapses for bacteria exposure _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- The Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington, top, photographed Friday, Feb. 13, 2015. The Estates of Northpark subdivision, bottom, is adjacent to the TNPRC.

Staff members at the Tulane National Primate Research Center near Covington may have transmitted dangerous bacteria from a secure lab into a monkey breeding colony or a veterinary clinic due to lapses in the use of protective personal gear, inspectors with two federal agencies said Friday.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued a statement pointing to staffers’ failure to correctly use outerwear — or to use it at all — when entering a lab where research was being conducted on the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei.

Tulane will be required to meet a list of requirements, including reviewing and revising its protective gear procedures and retraining its staff, before the federal agencies will lift a suspension on its authority to work with so-called “select agents” that has been in place since Feb. 11.

That could take months, a CDC spokesman said, and both agencies will have to sign off on the changes before the suspension is ended. Even after that, the Tulane center will be subject to unannounced inspections.

Select agents are biological agents or toxins “that could pose a severe threat to public health and plant health, or to animal or plant products,” according to the CDC website.

Burkholderia pseudomallei, which causes the infectious disease melioidosis, or Whitmore’s disease, is considered a select agent.

The federal agencies announced Friday they had completed a joint investigation that was triggered after test results in December showed two rhesus macaque monkeys at the center had contracted the disease. The animals were ultimately euthanized.

A third monkey that fell ill was later euthanized, and another five have tested positive for exposure to the bacteria.

The specific event that transmitted the bacteria has not been identified, the agencies said in a news release. But investigators did find “plausible mechanisms” to explain the transmission during their lengthy investigation. Lapses in the use of protective outerwear could have led to bacteria “clinging to inner garments and getting carried out of the select-agent lab where research was being conducted with the bacteria on mice,” the release said.

That could have introduced the bacteria to either the monkey breeding colony or the clinic where the monkeys were examined and treated. Inspectors also found that staff “frequently entered the select-agent lab without appropriate protective clothing, which would increase the risk of bringing the bacteria out of the lab or becoming infected themselves.”

Tests on one lab worker have shown exposure to the bacteria but at a low level.

Jason McDonald, a CDC spokesman, said the fact that the monkeys became ill indicated that something had gone wrong, and Burkholderia pseudomallei was the agent being worked with at the time.

While the agencies don’t know over how long a period the lax procedures with outerwear took place, he said, the center is subject to periodic inspections and such a problem would have been spotted. The last routine inspection was in December 2013, he said.

Tulane also must show it has in place procedures to ensure that animals accidentally exposed are managed appropriately, plus improved entry and exit procedures to the outside enclosures housing primates to stop any further transmission among the animals.

Tulane also might be required to take other steps, such as soil remediation, McDonald said. That’s under discussion now.

Michael Steele, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the focus now is on any remaining work, sampling or testing that needs to be done to ensure public health. That might involve environmental and wildlife testing, he said.

All test results from outside the center have come back negative thus far, he said.

The news release said a threat to the general population is unlikely.

Nevertheless, Tulane issued a statement Friday that included an apology for “any anxiety, discomfort or inconvenience this incident has caused.’’ Tulane said that in its nearly 50 years of operation, the primate center has never had a similar incident. “We are committed to working every day to rebuild and sustain the trust, good will and support we have received from our neighbors as we conduct vital research to combat a range of human diseases,’’ the statement said.

St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister said she was pleased with the progress being made in the investigation. “We will continue to press for closure on this issue and appreciate the continued work of all our local, state and federal partners,” she said.

Melioidosis is found in tropical areas and not in North America. Burkholderia pseudomallei is not transmitted between humans and animals, and the CDC news release called the risk of getting the disease low.

None of the center’s workers at greatest risk of exposure or those whose blood samples indicated weak levels of antibodies to the bacteria have become ill.

Staff writer Faimon A. Roberts III contributed to this report.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.