As we go to press, the news is full of reports about a deadly influenza virus that was mistakenly sent to more than 4,000 laboratories in at least 18 countries over a 6-month period. Strains of the virus were sent to labs as part of a testing kit used to determine a lab’s ability to identify various viruses or as a way for labs to acquire certification. The virus was the H2N2 Asian flu strain that killed more than 1 million people in 1957. After learning that this deadly virus had been sent to thousands of labs, the World Health Organization (WHO) immediately urged the labs to destroy all the samples. The most recent reports say that all but 2% of the virus samples have been destroyed, but officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say they cannot give a definite number until they have completed an investigation.

There are some questions regarding just how dangerous the virus is. A flu expert at the WHO says the virus could trigger a flu pandemic; the virus is fully transmissible and spreads rapidly. Most people born after 1957 have no immunity to it, since this particular strain has not been included in flu vaccines since 1968. However, no human cases of H2N2 have been detected so far; and most seem to agree that the risk to the general population is low, and that the danger to lab workers is minimal if they handle the virus carefully.

Still, there are many disturbing aspects to this story, and some believe that there will be more chilling revelations as it develops. First, it is not clear how this mistake happened. Why didn’t the company that made the test kits have some means by which to avoid this kind of error? Was the company aware that it was including a deadly virus in the kits? If so, why did it not communicate this to the organizations providing the test kits to labs? The laboratories that received the kits had no way of knowing they were working with a dangerous strain.

Another troubling question: How will we know that all the samples have been destroyed? More than one observer has suggested that some laboratories could have sent derivatives of the sample elsewhere. Still another concern is that the test kits are not the only supplies of the 1957 pandemic strain in laboratories around the world. Apparently, no one knows how many laboratories have kept it in their stockpiles.

Here are some safeguards that are being discussed or implemented that seem to make sense:

  • Require laboratories to confirm in writing that they have destroyed their H2N2 samples and that they are monitoring their laboratory staff for any respiratory disease;
  • Upgrade the biosafety level for handling H2N2 to require extra safety precautions; and
  • Communicate regarding which viruses are being sent to labs. This includes notifying the CDC about the strains of virus involved when shipping pathogens in the future.

Shipping the H2N2 virus could be a mistake with disastrous consequences, but I hope that as this story continues to unfold, the news will be good and that all samples of the deadly virus were destroyed and that not one person becomes ill as a result of this monumental snafu.

en02.jpg (5658 bytes)
Carol Andrews
[email protected]