Part of the issue is how these pathogens were stored in the early 1900’s. Many of the scientists and labs routinely kept “historical collections” which ended up in the back of freezers or hidden away in drawers or shelves. At the time they were stored, they weren’t required to be in special labs or have the special handling requirements that exist today.
The latest finding was a nearly 100 year old bottle of ricin along with a number of other dangerous pathogens found by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH is currently conducting a search for hazardous materials which are improperly stored within its laboratories. This is part of an ongoing search which began in July when the NIH stumbled across vials of smallpox improperly stored and forgotten about in its facilities dating from the 1950s.
In the latest discovery, the NIH found small amounts of five different dangerous pathogens which should have been stored in specially equipped high security laboratories. The pathogens included ricin, plague, tularemia, melioidosis (a rare tropical infection) and pathogens which cause botulism. All the pathogens were found in sealed containers, and were found with material dated in the early 1900s. There wasn’t any indication they posed a safety risk to any of the workers in the areas where they were found. All have since been destroyed without incident.
The NIH sent out a memo which said, “NIH takes this matter very seriously. The finding of these agents highlights the need for constant vigilance in monitoring laboratory materials in compliance with federal regulations on biosafety.”
The NIH wasn’t the only government agency to find unsecured pathogens this week. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also reported finding Staphylococcus enterotoxin, a pathogen which can cause food poisoning, improperly stored at its facilities. The pathogen was found in a locked freezer, but in an area not secured to handle dangerous pathogens. The vials were taken to a lab able to handle them safely, and then destroyed, according to the FDA.
(Photo courtesy of Museum de Toulouse)