US military lab studying Ebola and plague is shut down over fears of contaminating wastewater

(Image: Wikimedia)

A military lab studying diseases like Ebola and the plague has been shut down by the government amid fears over contamination and safety.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a cease-and-desist order to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland, halting all research after determining the wastewater decontamination system failed to meet safety standards, according to The Frederick News-Post.

(Image: defense.gov)

The Fort Detrick laboratory, which has been working on its decontamination processes since flooding last May, had its Federal Select Agents Program registration suspended and will have to get re-approved to once again conduct research as it had on high-level disease-causing material, like Ebola.

“To maximize the safety of our employees, there are multiple layers of protective equipment and validated processes,” spokeswoman for the military’s leading biodefense center, Caree Vander Linden, said after it was determined the center did not have “sufficient systems in place to decontaminate wastewater.”

“USAMRIID will return to fully operational status upon meeting benchmark requirements for biosafety,” she added. “We will resume operations when the Army and the CDC are satisfied that USAMRIID can safely and consistently meet all standards.”

The CDC’s notice to the facility cited a number of concerns, including an inadequate decontamination process and not enough retraining of workers.

“As situations warrant, [Federal Select Agent Program] will take whatever appropriate action is necessary to resolve any departures from regulatory compliance in order to help ensure the safety and security of work with select agents and toxins,” Kathryn Harben, a spokeswoman for the CDC, told The Frederick News-Post.

According to the News-Post:

At the time of the cease and desist order, USAMRIID scientists were working with agents known to cause tularemia, also called deer fly or rabbit fever, the plague and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, all of which were worked on in a biosafety level 3 laboratory. Researchers were also working with the Ebola virus in a biosafety level 4 lab, Vander Linden said.

 

The Ebola, plague and tularemia pathogens are Tier 1 agents on the Health and Human Services list of select agents and toxins, posing a severe public health and safety threat. Facilities handling the toxins have to have special clearance and background checks as some of the agents can be used as weapons.

No disease-causing materials were found outside the authorized areas at the site but Vander Linden could not be sure when the lab would be allowed to return to its research.

The Ebola virus, which first broke out in Central Africa, is a severe and often fatal disease, according to the World  Health Organization which explains that it “spreads in the human population through direct contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and with surfaces and materials (e.g. bedding, clothing) contaminated with these fluids.”

The recent outbreak in West Africa was “the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the virus was first discovered in 1976,” the organization reported. “There were more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined.”

An influx of refugees fleeing the Congo, where an Ebola epidemic that began last year has now surpassed 2,000 cases, arrived in San Antonio back in June.

The Texas city was reportedly not informed by U.S. Border Patrol that the migrants were coming and was ill-equipped to receive them. The group had been traveling to the southern U.S. border with a group of about 350 migrants through Ecuador.

Frieda Powers

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