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Deadly Flu Virus Mistakenly Sent to Thousands of Labs

Test facilities in 18 countries scramble to destroy 1957 killer 'Asian Flu' virus; U.S. health official says public exposure threat low

WEDNESDAY, April 13, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- An influenza virus that caused the deaths of more than 1 million people in 1957 was mistakenly sent to thousands of laboratories around the world during the past six months, health officials confirmed Wednesday.

Health organizations moved rapidly to have the killer virus destroyed before any of it could be released. By midday Wednesday, there were reports that at least seven of the 18 countries involved had incinerated the samples sent to their laboratories. And a key distributor in the United States, where a vast majority of the labs are located, said at least 1,000 samples had also been destroyed.

Meanwhile, U.S. health experts said the threat of public exposure to the virus, known as the H2N2 "Asian flu," appears low. And the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on its Web site that there have been no cases of the flu strain anywhere in the world.

But Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cautioned at a news conference Wednesday, "While the risk is very low, we're not taking any chances, and we are doing everything we can to make sure there is no threat to human health."

According to Gerberding, at least 4,000 labs in 18 countries received the virus in quality-control test kits sent out by Meridian Bioscience Inc. of Cincinnati, which makes influenza test kits for medical facilities.

Meridian, she added, probably knew that the H2N2 virus was in the panel but somehow didn't take into account that the virus could represent a public health threat.

"We don't know why they included the virus, but it was probably not inadvertent," Gerberding said. "It was probably a situation where the advantage of using a strain that grows well and can be easily manipulated in the lab was the driving force without even considering that the test strain in a panel could cause a hazard."

On Wednesday, news reports quoted company spokesmen saying that Meridian had followed regulations in sending out the samples.

Almost all the labs were in the United States, but 75 kits also went to labs in Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America, according to a WHO statement on its Web site.

On Wednesday, the WHO said Canada, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore had already destroyed their samples, laboratories in Japan were doing the same, and Germany said all its vials had been destroyed, according to the Associated Press. In addition, test kits were sent to labs in Belgium, Bermuda, Brazil, Chile, France, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

In the United States, documentation shows that more than 1,000 samples have already been destroyed, according to a spokesman for the College of American Pathologists (CAP), which is monitoring the destruction process.

Most labs would automatically destroy the panels after they had finished using them, Dr. Jared Schwartz, the CAP spokesman, said.

Labs are being asked to report immediately to the CDC or the appropriate public health authority once the virus is destroyed, Gerberding added. But she also said she did not know how many labs had already destroyed their specimens.

Although authorities were notified of the mistake only three weeks ago, the first specimens were actually mailed out in September 2004, according to Schwartz.

Nevertheless, he too believes the "risk to the general public is extremely low."

The virus has been kept in freezers for years and has been grown in tissue culture, which makes it less virulent, Schwartz said.

"What we're talking about here is a theoretical concern, which is legitimate," he said.

At the news conference, Gerberding appeared to echo his caution.

"The strain has been passed in the lab many, many times, and our experience with viruses is that when they are used like this, they very often lose infectivity," she said. "We have no proof of that in this case, but that's what we've seen when other viruses go through the process."

"The specimens actually were sent out in September of 2004 and there's been no evidence of any outbreak or infection among laboratory workers," Schwartz added.

"The greatest potential threat theoretically would be to the individual lab workers who actually handled the specimen, and that threat is extraordinarily low," he said. "These people are trained. It's very rare to find a lab worker who has gotten an infection because they worked in a lab, period."

For the threat to reach the general public, the lab worker would have to get infected, develop the disease and go out into the world to spread it, he said.

Schwartz also believes that most of the rest of the U.S. specimens would have been destroyed by now.

The problem first surfaced, according to WHO, when a Canadian testing lab detected the deadly virus. Canadian health officials notified WHO authorities on March 26, and the CAP was notified April 8.

How did Meridian come into possession of such a deadly germ?

According to the AP report, Meridian took a sample from the pathology college's stockpile and selected the 1957 virus. Schwartz said the pathology college had received the strain from a "germ library" in 2000.

It's not entirely clear how the mistake happened, Schwartz said, but the virus strain was classified as a Biologic Safety (BS) level 2, meaning it could go to any laboratory performing general laboratory work.

"It was their belief that the virus that they put into our packets that were sent to our customers was a relatively innocuous virus," Schwartz said.

What the lab didn't know -- and what the CAP later found out -- was that the CDC was considering upgrading the strain to a BS level 3, Schwartz added.

Dr. Nancy Cox, head of the CDC's influenza division, confirmed that the agency has drafted recommendations to upgrade this particular virus to level 3.

The organisms that were accidentally distributed to the labs around the world are used widely in research, which could include developing potential new vaccines or anti-viral drugs, Schwartz explained. They are also used in quality control or to verify if a new test actually works.

"There are lots and lots of these organisms, and they are predominantly used in research," Schwartz added.

More information

The World Health Organization has the latest information on the deadly virus.

SOURCES: Julie Gerberding, M.D., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Jared Schwartz, M.D., spokesman, College of American Pathologists, Northfield, Ill.; April 12, 2005, World Health Organization statement; Associated Press
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