Texas A&M failed to report safety problems in lab, documents show

Emily Ramshaw

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (MCT) – At least one Texas A&M University lab employee exposed to a dangerous infectious agent last year didn’t have federal approval to work with it, according to records reviewed by The Dallas Morning News.

Records show that other high-safety experiments were conducted in a lab not authorized for them.

These are the latest revelations in a scientific scandal at Texas A&M, stemming from the university’s failure to report cases of workers being exposed to “select agents” to the federal government. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention has so far suspended the federally funded biodefense program’s prize research and jeopardized its future.

Federal investigators spent four days examining a Brucella infection and several Q-Fever exposures in campus labs.

Personal injury and occupational safety reports at six Texas universities conducting lab-based biodefense research show just a handful of infections by select agents, such as anthrax and smallpox, over the last five years.

CDC officials have learned of just 15 select agent exposure incidents since 2006. But the Texas schools reported dozens of needle pricks, splashes, inhalations and exposure to other deadly, highly-monitored diseases over the last several years – everything from tuberculosis to HIV.

Infectious disease researchers say it’s impossible to prevent all lab accidents and these numbers are relatively low.

“They’re very rare – and most of them aren’t even the kinds of exposure we’re required to report,” said Dr. Stanley Lemon, director of Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “When they happen, we take them very seriously.”

CDC investigators have yet to release a report on their A&M visit. The findings, if critical, could result in serious penalties from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, including suspension of funding or penalties of up to $500,000.