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Missing Killer Flu Virus Sample Count Not Clear: CDC

Top official estimates two dozen samples still to be found

THURSDAY, April 21, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- As many as a couple of dozen test kits containing a deadly flu virus still have not been rounded up and destroyed in the United States, government health officials said Thursday.

Almost two weeks after the first alert to the global problem was sounded, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was a bit unclear at a Thursday press conference on how many samples of the virus known as H2N2 were actually still missing.

"Based on our calculus of the number of labs we think had the samples, a couple of dozen maybe," said Dr. Julie Gerberding. "But there's always some uncertainty of record-keeping, so we can't give a certain number until we have done the investigation" of the entire incident.

The virus, which killed more than 1 million people in 1957, was obtained from Meridian Bioscience Inc. of Cincinnati, which makes influenza test kits for medical facilities. The College of American Pathologists (CAP), one of the organizations that included the Meridian sample in proficiency-testing kits that were shipped to more than 4,000 laboratories in 18 countries over a six-month period, has said that 99.6 percent of all the samples have been located and destroyed. Those include all but one country outside the United States. And that country, Lebanon, is holding its sample for shipment, according to news reports Thursday.

Within the United States, however, public health investigators are now contacting labs not on the initial distribution list to make sure that they did not have any samples, Gerderding said.

As for the stragglers, Gerberding said that one lab had changed its telephone number and another had closed without leaving a clear indication of who is in charge.

"There are some exceptional situations still in play," she added. "We probably are going to be reluctant to say quickly it's 100 percent, because as we continue, we may discover a lab here or there that still has the virus."

A spokesman for CAP said on Thursday that the organization did not know what lists Gerberding might have been referring to.

"We know where all of the things we sent are and we've got fewer than a dozen that we are yet to receive written confirmation on, but we will probably have those quite soon," the spokesman said. "We wouldn't send kits out to anyone not on the list. They pay for it. We're a not-for-profit, but we still have to cover our expenses."

CAP has 3,747 labs that participate in the proficiency testing program. Other organizations sent specimens of H2N2 obtained from Meridien to their own lists of labs.

As she had done a week ago, Gerberding emphasized Thursday that no human cases of H2N2 had been detected anywhere in the world and that the danger to lab workers and the public was minimal.

The problem first surfaced, according to the World Health Organization, when a Canadian testing lab detected the deadly virus. Canadian health officials notified WHO authorities, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC on April 8.

Officials were still not able to say why the virus was sent out in the first place. "We can't answer that today, but we will have an answer as the investigation proceeds," Gerberding said.

The recovered kits are being destroyed "using methods that we would normally use to eradicate any threat to human beings," Gerberding said. In addition to autoclaving, "they are incinerated and handled as medical waste," she said.

As part of a longer term effort, the CDC is investigating exactly how strains of a half-century-old killer virus was let loose and what can be done to avoid such an incident in the future. One initiative will have the H2N2 virus likely upgraded to a Biosafety Level 3 pathogen. The CDC is also issuing guidance for new recommendations around proficiency testing.

At the same news conference, Gerberding announced that Congress had formally approved a reorganization of the CDC, including the creation of four new coordinating centers and two national offices.

"As an agency, we've taken a hard look at the challenges and opportunities facing us and recognized that we needed to adjust, we needed to be a 21st century health agency," Gerberding said. "We intend to have a measurable impact on health and intend for everyone to see what that impact is and whether or not we are making progress in achieving it."

More information

The World Health Organization has more on the distribution of the 1957 flu strain.

SOURCES: April 21, 2005, news conference with Julie Gerberding, M.D., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; spokesperson, College of American Pathologists
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