Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reinstated Tulane University’s permit to work with dangerous biological agents, more than a year after the permit was suspended when three monkeys at the university’s Covington-area research center were infected with potentially deadly Burkholderia pseudomallei bacteria.
Tulane announced the reinstatement Monday but said that work with “select agents” — those deemed to pose a potentially grave danger to public or plant health or to animal or plant products — will not resume until officials at the Tulane National Primate Research Center put into place additional safety measures that are still being implemented.
The CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture suspended the center’s permit early last year after three monkeys were diagnosed with an infection from Burkholderia pseudomallei, a bacterium native to southeast Asia and northern Australia.
The bacterium causes melioidosis, or Whitmore’s disease, which can be fatal if not treated with antibiotics. The three rhesus macaque monkeys were eventually euthanized, and a handful more tested positive for exposure to the bacterium, though they never became infected.
None of the monkeys exposed or infected was a test subject in experiments; they were all members of the center’s breeding colony of several thousand monkeys. Each had been to the center’s veterinary clinic, however, and investigators traced their infection there.
An investigation by federal inspectors later found that scientists at the center had at times neglected to wear protective gear or else wore it improperly when they entered the laboratory where the bacteria were kept.
The permit has been suspended pending Tulane’s completion of a plan to address the problems at the center and retrain its staff on safety precautions.
Federal inspectors have been at the center numerous times over the past year to assess its progress.
Angela Birnbaum, a new biosafety director who came from Harvard University, has spearheaded Tulane’s effort to have the permit reinstated.
Not all research at the center was impacted by the suspension. Work on some diseases, including HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, has continued, even leading to an increase in research funding.
The infection of the monkeys also spurred a local and state response, including the widespread testing of nearby soil and water as well as of wildlife in the woods around the 500-acre site. All of those tests were negative, and St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister said Monday she was confident the problems have been resolved.
“The Primate Center has improved its operations and will continue to be a great corporate citizen in our parish,” she said in a statement.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.