The release of a deadly bacterium from a research lab near Covington has triggered a federal review not just of procedures at that facility but of how all U.S. facilities such as the Tulane National Primate Research Center are overseen, officials said Tuesday night.
Earlier this month, a report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited staff members at the Tulane center for not wearing proper protective equipment when working with dangerous pathogens, or at times not wearing it correctly. The primate center is working on a plan to make sure similar lapses do not happen again.
While that plan is being created, the Tulane center has been prohibited by the CDC from working on any “select agents,” or those classified as having the potential to pose a grave threat to human, animal or plant health.
But the release of the Burkholderia pseudomallei bacterium, which has caused a federal, state and local investigation into how it happened, also has prompted CDC officials to review their policies on inspections of all such facilities, said Dr. Dan Sosin, the deputy director and chief medical officer of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.
Sosin spoke to a packed St. Tammany Parish Council Chamber at a public meeting called to discuss the release, which was revealed in January and has resulted in the euthanization of three monkeys. Six other monkeys are confirmed to have been exposed, and several others are suspected of having been exposed and are being retested. Officials have completed testing on more than 600 monkeys that may have been exposed but have several hundred to go, officials said.
Sosin said the CDC needs to include more active observation at such research centers in addition to policy and procedures review.
During Tuesday’s meeting, several members of the public questioned officials from the CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and various state agencies as well as Tulane about what they plan to do to make sure the bacterium did not spread away from the facility and that such a release does not happen again.
Michael Sarver, who has a daughter at Northlake Christian School, which sits adjacent to the primate center, asked officials how they could be sure the bacterium — which is believed to have moved from the supposedly secure lab to the center’s veterinary clinic — had not gotten outside to the large monkey breeding colony.
“There is no evidence it got outside,” replied Dr. Andrew Lackner, director of the Tulane center.
Other questions during the meeting concerned what is being done to keep local health care professionals informed and whether the bacterium could be carried in runoff or wastewater.
Representatives from several agencies, including the EPA, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, will continue to monitor the soil, water and wildlife in and around the primate center.
Tuesday’s public meeting was arranged by Parish President Pat Brister, who has at times complained about a lack of information from the “unified command,” the group of federal, state and local agencies tasked with overseeing the response to the incident, which began with the infection of two monkeys in November.
Investigators have identified the primate center’s clinic as the epicenter of the exposures because every monkey that has tested positive was treated at the clinic sometime in late 2014 or early 2015.
The sprawling 500-acre primate center is a major lab for infectious disease research, including on tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria. The center houses about 4,500 rhesus macaque monkeys, most of which are never used in research experiments.
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