April 13, 2005
Dangerous 1957 Influenza Strain Accidentally Sent To Thousands Of Labs

What, me worry?

A dangerous strain of the flu virus that caused a worldwide pandemic in 1957 was sent to thousands of laboratories in the United States and around the world, triggering a frantic effort to destroy the samples to prevent an outbreak, health officials revealed Tuesday.

Because the virus is easily transmitted from person to person and many have no immunity to it, the discovery has raised alarm that it could cause another deadly pandemic if a laboratory worker became infected, officials said.


The virus, known as an H2N2 strain, killed one million to four million people worldwide in 1957 and 1958, including about 70,000 in the United States.

The world population is a lot bigger today. So the potential death toll from outbreak of the same strain could be much higher.

Meridian Biosciences distributed the virus in order to give labs a strain to use for practice testing for flu.

In this case, the kits and samples were designed for groups that assist labs with proficiency testing. Dr. Jared Schwartz, an official with the College of American Pathologists, said Meridian was told to pick an influenza sample and chose from its stockpile the deadly H2N2 strain, which it had received from a "germ library" in 2000.

The College of American Pathologists has said it sent 3,747 kits to various U.S. labs.

At the moment I'm writing this the Meridian Bioscience web site is suspended. My guess: A rarely visited web site was suddenly swamped by a huge number of visitors coming to see what Meridian has to say about their potentially deadly error.

If an outbreak does not happen as a result of this error we might benefit in the long run from the publicity surrounding the error. There is an obvious question that ought to be asked at this point: Which other companies, academic, and government labs already have the 1957 strain or other past killer influenza strains? If you would have asked me before this story broke to guess at how many organizations had the 1957 H2N2 strain I would have guessed a few government labs and maybe a couple of academic labs. Now I'm guessing at least hundreds of labs already had it even before Meridian's latest distribution. The same applies to other past killer strains.

Meridian and the World Health Organization think the risk of outbreak is low.

"While a few H2N2 laboratory acquired infections have been documented in the past, the likelihood of laboratory-acquired influenza infection is considered low when proper biosafety precautions are followed," Meridian said in a statement. "The risk for the general population is also considered low." The WHO also has said the risk of an outbreak is slight.

Klaus Stohr of the World Health Organization says that the CDC doesn't classify this pathogen as so dangerous that its distribution should be restricted.

Stohr said the company which sent out the virus samples - Meridian Bioscience Inc. of Newtown, Ohio - abided by current U.S. regulations.

"At the moment, H2N2 is classified as a BSL2, or biosafety level 2, pathogen," he said. "They are allowed to (send it out as part of a test kit).

"They sent it properly packaged, they informed the recipient, they only became aware after the whole matter was better understood that (the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention) is working on a change in the biosafety level for H2N2."

This error was not discovered quickly or reacted to quickly.

The virus samples were distributed by the CAP in October 2004, but the problem was discovered only by a Canadian laboratory only last month.

So the virus was sitting in labs for 5 months, was discovered last month by a Canadian lab (good for them!), and only now is the word going out to destroy the samples. One can argue that labs which get these sorts of samples follow all sorts of safety procedures. But don't you think those lab workers would be more diligent (if not to say scared) if they were made aware that they were receiving a influenza virus that has more lethality than the average strain?

Coincidentally, a great vaccine developer and the man who led the development of the original vaccine for the 1957 Hong Kong flu strain has just died.

Maurice Ralph Hilleman, 85, whose vaccines probably saved more lives than any scientist in the past century, and whose research helps the medical establishment predict and prepare for upcoming flu seasons, died April 11 of cancer at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia.

Dr. Hilleman created eight of the 14 most commonly used vaccines, including those for mumps, measles, chicken pox, pneumonia, meningitis, rubella and many other infectious diseases. He developed more than three dozen vaccines, more than any other scientist. His measles vaccine alone is estimated to prevent 1 million deaths worldwide every year.

This article on Hilleman makes him sound like an unusually independent, creative, and driven mind:

He discovered Darwin in eighth grade and was caught reading "The Origin of the Species" in church.

He reminds me of similar unknown, Norman Borlaug, whose work developing crop strains has saved more people from hunger than any other person in history.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 April 13 12:13 PM  Dangers Natural Bio

Robert Hume said at April 16, 2005 10:31 AM:

Any ideas why Hilleman did not get the Nobel Prize? I believe Borlaug did, but am not sure.

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