NIH finds old ricin, other for­got­ten germs in labs

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - SCIENCE - By LAU­RAN NEER­GAARD

WASH­ING­TON — The Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health said it has un­cov­ered a nearly cen­tury-old con­tainer of ricin and a hand­ful of other for­got­ten sam­ples of dan­ger­ous pathogens as it combs its lab­o­ra­to­ries for im­prop­erly stored hazardous ma­te­ri­als.

The agency be­gan an in­ten­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tion of all its fa­cil­i­ties after a sci­en­tist in July found vials of small­pox dat­ing from the 1950s, along with other con­ta­gious viruses and bac­te­ria that had been stored and for­got­ten in one lab on the NIH’s cam­pus.

Fri­day, the NIH said in dif­fer­ent fa­cil­i­ties, it found small amounts of five im­prop­erly stored “se­lect agents,” pathogens that must be regis­tered and kept only in cer­tain highly reg­u­lated lab­o­ra­to­ries. All were found in sealed and in­tact con­tain­ers, with no ev­i­dence that they posed a safety risk to any­one in the labs or sur­round­ing ar­eas, the agency said in a memo to em­ploy­ees. All have been de­stroyed.

They in­cluded a bot­tle of ricin, a highly poi­sonous toxin, found in a box with mi­crobes dat­ing from 1914 and thought to be 85 to 100 years old, the memo said. The bot­tle was la­beled as orig­i­nally con­tain­ing 5 grams, although NIH doesn’t know how much was left.

Ricin has le­git­i­mate re­search uses, the NIH said, but was not stud­ied in this lab.

Also dis­cov­ered were sam­ples list­ing pathogens that cause bot­u­lism, plague, tu­laremia and a rare trop­i­cal in­fec­tion called me­lioi­do­sis.

The NIH does have lab­o­ra­to­ries that are cleared to use se­lect agents, and those pathogens are reg­u­larly in­ven­to­ried, said NIH di­rec­tor of re­search ser­vices Dr. Al­fred John­son, who over­sees agency se­cu­rity and safety is­sues.

But th­ese sam­ples were in dif­fer­ent labs, mostly in his­tor­i­cal col­lec­tions that sci­en­tists once rou­tinely kept in the backs of freez­ers or on dusty shelves but that to­day re­quire spe­cial han­dling.

“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 agency memo said.

Sep­a­rately Fri­day, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ported it had found still another im­prop­erly stored pathogen in one of its lab­o­ra­to­ries — sta­phy­lo­coc­cus en­tero­toxin that can cause food poi­son­ing. The vials were in a locked freezer but not in a lab regis­tered to work with se­lect agents, and thus have been re­lo­cated to the cor­rect fa­cil­ity, FDA said.

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