Bioweapons Infections Hit Texas A&M University Again (Q Fever Cluster)
- Accident Happened During Biodefense Experiments
- Q Fever Cluster Not Reported to the Centers for Disease Control
- Second Documented Violation of Federal Bioweapons Law by Texas A&M
- Further Sanctions under Texas Public Information Act possible
Three Texas A&M University biodefense researchers were infected with the biological weapons agent Q Fever in 2006. The infections were confirmed in April of that year, but Texas A&M officials did not report them to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as required by law. Instead, Texas A&M officials covered the infections up until now, illegally failing to disclose them despite freedom of information requests dating back to October 2006.
The Q Fever cluster is a separate incident than the 2006 infection at Texas A&M with the bioweapons agent Brucella, first reported this April by the Sunshine Project. Texas A&M is liable for $750,000 or more in federal fines ($1.5 million including the brucella incident) for failure to report, as well as possible charges under the Texas Public Information Act.
After a lengthy freedom of information battle, documents received by the Sunshine Project yesterday (June 25th) reveal that the infections were confirmed on 3 April 2006. On that day, Scott & White Hospital called A&M Professor James Samuel as well as Brent Maddox, the university's institutional biosafety officer, to tell them that three of Samuel's lab workers had tested positive for Q Fever (Coxiella burnetti). The mechanism of exposure is not stated in the records released; but the Samuel lab conducts aerosol challenges of pigs and other studies with the Q Fever bacteria.
"It is apparent that brucella was only the beginning of Texas A&M's problems." says Sunshine Project Director Edward Hammond, "A&M's infection of its staff and students with bioweapons agents and its serial violations of the Select Agent Rule demand law enforcement. If the US government fails to severely sanction Texas A&M, then the Select Agent Rule might as well be tossed in the trash can." Adds Hammond, "Unpunished, Texas A&M's impunity reduces the Bioterrorism Act to mere half-hearted suggestion, rather than the law of the land. Congress surely did not intend biology professors to consider law to prevent bioterrorism as optional."
What prompted the infected individuals to visit the hospital is not stated in the documents received by the Sunshine Project. Yet three individuals from the same lab visited the hospital at the same time and had the same tests for a very unusual pathogen performed. Circumstances strongly suggest a lab accident that led the researchers to suspect (correctly) that had become infected. According to the A&M records, upon learning of the infections, the main action of the biosafety officer was to report the accident to the co-chairs of the Texas A&M Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), who include Thomas Ficht, the professor responsible for the researcher who contracted Brucella in February 2006. But no mention of a Q Fever accident appears in Texas A&M's biosafety committee meeting minutes.
In fact, Texas A&M has produced zero documentation, such as accident reports, lab paperwork, lessons learned, modified operating procedures, or anything else except a few sparse e-mails for either the Q Fever or the Brucella accident. This is despite open records requests for such paperwork. "If Texas A&M's replies under the Texas Public Information Act are to be believed," says Hammond, "then four people at the University have been infected with bioweapons agents without responsible A&M professors and other officials even bothering to file a simple incident report, much less alert the community or report to public health officials."
According to federal law, A&M was required to report the infections immediately upon their discovery and to file a federal report, called APHIS/CDC Form 3, within 7 days. It did not do so. Under the Texas Public Information Act, which includes civil and criminal penalties for false responses, Texas A&M has denied filing any report of the Q Fever infections. By not reporting the infections to the government, Texas A&M thus violated (again) the Select Agent Rule, the main federal law intended to protect Americans from biodefense research gone awry.
Samuel is a professor of Medical Microbiology and Immunology and teaches courses at Texas A&M's Center for Homeland Security, which is funded by the US Department of Homeland Security. Samuel also receives biodefense funding from the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) and the NIH-funded Southwest Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, managed by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The records released to the Sunshine Project do not contain information concerning the treatment of the infected individuals.
Several freedom of information requests to Texas A&M remain unanswered. The Sunshine Project will continue to pursue these and other requests until a satisfactory resolution, including federal and state government action, is achieved.