Deadly bacteria leaked in Louisiana lab: Cause & spread unknown

Reuters / Mike Blake
Weeks of investigation by federal and state agencies have failed to uncover how a potential bioterror agent escaped from a Louisiana laboratory four months ago, or how far it has spread.

Since November, four rhesus macaque monkeys and a USDA investigator have been infected. Cultures of Burkholderia pseudomallei somehow got out of the secure facility at Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington, about 50 miles north of New Orleans, reported USA Today. Officials insist there is no danger to the public.

The bacteria cause meliodosis, a disease with a 50%-fatality rate even with treatment. Because it’s resistant to multiple antibiotics, meliodosis has been researched as a potential biological weapon, though the Tulane lab is said to have been working on a vaccine.

We're taking this extraordinarily seriously. It's very disturbing to us,” Andrew Lackner, director of the Tulane primate center, told USA Today. He also reiterated: “There has never been a public health threat.”

Centers for Disease Control and the US Department of Agriculture, which jointly manage biological research under the Federal Select Agent Program, have suspended all further research at Tulane pending the end of the investigation. The facility has never been suspended before.

Federal investigators determined the four rhesus macaques and the USDA investigator were infected at the facility’s veterinary hospital on the South Campus. The investigator has since recovered, but two of the monkeys have been euthanized.

However, there is still no explanation of how the deadly bacteria got to the hospital from the supposedly secure laboratory on the North Campus. USA Today describes the laboratory as a “biosafety level 3” facility with a “wide range of high-tech safeguards, physical barriers and procedures” that are supposed to ensure dangerous pathogens remain contained.

Government officials haven’t divulged any details of the investigation, but experts interviewed by USA Today say human error is the most likely cause. CDC sources told the paper that Tulane’s laboratories were last inspected in December 2013, and no “significant problems” were reported at the time.

Burkholderia pseudomallei is found in Southeast Asia and Australia. The strain being researched at Tulane (“Strain 1026b”) was recovered from a Thai rice farmer infected in 1993, according to a CDC source quoted by the paper. Melioidosis attacks the lungs and has a wide range of symptoms – fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, loss of appetite – so it’s often mistaken for pneumonia or tuberculosis.