[Paleopsych] AP: Scientists Scramble to Destroy Flu Strain

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Wed Apr 13 17:19:19 UTC 2005

Scientists Scramble to Destroy Flu Strain
By Emma Ross
AP Medical Writer

[Thanks to Marge for this.]

LONDON - Thousands of scientists were scrambling Tuesday at the urging of
global health authorities to destroy vials of a pandemic flu strain sent
to labs in 18 countries as part of routine testing.

The rush, urged by the World Health Organization, was sparked by a slim,
but real, risk that the samples, could spark a global flu epidemic. The
vials of virus sent by a U.S. company went to nearly 5,000 labs, mostly
in the United States, officials said.

"The risk is relatively low that a lab worker will get sick, but a large
number of labs got it and if someone does get infected, the risk of
severe illness is high and this virus has shown to be fully
transmissible," WHO's influenza chief, Klaus Stohr, told The Associated

It was not immediately clear why the 1957 pandemic strain, which killed
between 1 million and 4 million people — was in the proficiency test kits
routinely sent to labs.

It was a decision that Stohr described as "unwise," and "unfortunate."

That particular bug was "an epidemic virus for many years," Stohr said
from the U.N. health agency's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. "The
risk is low but things can go wrong as long as these samples are out
there and there are some still out there."

The 1957 strain has not been included in the flu vaccine since 1968, and
anyone born after that date has no immunity to it.

Dr. Nancy Cox, chief of the influenza branch at the federal Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said her agency was notified
of the situation Friday morning. She also said officials strongly doubt
someone deliberately planted the dangerous germ or that this was an act
of bioterrorism.

"It wouldn't be a smart way to start a pandemic to send it to
laboratories because we have people well trained in biocontainment," she

The concern over the shipment of pandemic flu virus to thousands labs
renews questions about the safe handling of deadly germs — an issue that
led to toughened U.S. rules after anthrax was sent in the mail in 2001,
killing five Americans.

Most of the flu samples — 3,747 — were sent starting last year at the
request of the College of American Pathologists, which helps labs do
proficiency testing. The last shipments were sent out in February.

Dr. Jared Schwartz, an official with the pathology college, said a
private company, Meridian Bioscience Inc. of Cincinnati, Ohio, is paid to
prepare the samples. The firm was told to pick an influenza A sample and
chose from its stockpile the deadly 1957 H2N2 strain.

Stohr said U.S. health officials also reported to WHO that some other
test kit providers besides the college used the 1957 pandemic strain in
samples sent to labs in the United States. Schwartz identified them as
Medical Lab Evaluators, the American Association of Bioanalysts and the
American Association of Family Practitioners.

Almost 99 percent of the labs that got the test kits are in the United
States, Stohr said. Fourteen were in Canada and 61 samples went to labs
in 16 other countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America,
according to the WHO.

Some of the labs outside the United States have already destroyed their
samples, he said, and WHO is hoping that the rest of the vials will be
destroyed by Friday. The health agency wouldn't name the other countries
whose labs received the samples.

The test kits are used for internal quality control checks to demonstrate
that a lab is able to correctly identify viruses or as a way for labs to
get certified by the College of American Pathologists.

The kits involve blind samples. The lab then has to correctly identify
the pathogen in the vial in order to pass the test. Usually, the
influenza virus included in these kits is one that is currently
circulating, or at least one that has recently been in circulation.

On March 26, National Microbial Laboratory Canada detected the 1957
pandemic strain in a sample not connected with the test kit. After
informing WHO and the CDC of the strange finding, the lab investigated.
It informed the U.N. health agency on Friday that it had traced the virus
to the test kit.

The WHO then notified the health authorities in all countries that
received the kits and recommended that all the samples be destroyed

That same day, the College of American Pathologists faxed the labs asking
them to immediately incinerate the samples and to confirm in writing that
the operation had been completed.

Stohr said the test kits are not the only supplies of the 1957 pandemic
strain sitting in laboratories around the world.

"The world really has to think what routine labs should be doing with
these samples they have kept in the back of their fridges," Storh said.

Viruses are classed according to the level of lab safety precautions that
must be taken when handling them. Routine viruses can be handled in labs
with a basic level of biosafety protection. However, very dangerous
viruses, such as Ebola, can only be handled at labs with top-level safety
measures. Those labs have a biosafety level of 4.

The 1957 flu virus has for years been a level 2 virus, but many countries
have upgraded it to a biosafety level of 3 because so many people have no
immunity to it. Stohr said U.S. officials reviewing the classification
and are expected to increase it to a level 3 later this summer.

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