The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating Texas A&M after the university apparently failed to report that a researcher had been infected with a bioweapons agent.
The incident happened back in February of last year, and apparently occurred at the Laboratory Animal Resources and Research (LARR) Building.
An arms-control watchdog group called The Sunshine Project and their director, Edward Hammond, were doing a survey of institutions vying for a government facility. He submitted a public information request for accident reports at A&M. All he got back was a sheet of paper simply saying there had been an "occupational exposure" of brucella.
Read all the reports unearthed by The Sunshine Project in the Related Links section at the end of this story.
"It was obvious that an accident that bad would generate more paperwork, so I was puzzled by their first response to me," Hammond said.
E-mails obtained by the Austin-based group show conversations between top A&M research officials about the incident some two months later. That's when researcher was diagnosed. She eventually did recover from her illness, which was first discovered in April 2006.
The e-mails indicated the researcher had been infected in February 2006 as she attempted to clean a chamber where they were conducting experiments on mice.
The bacteria in question is brucella. The CDC reports it is primarily passed through animals like cattle and sheep. Brucellosis symptoms are similar to the flu, but the bacteria can be weaponized.
Those e-mail exchanges included talks that A&M needed to inform the CDC about the incident. By law, a report needed to be filed within seven days of confirmation.
Again according to documents obtained by The Sunshine Project, that notification of the incident did not come until April 10, 14 months after the incident, 12 months after its confirmation.
In documents sent to The Sunshine Project last week, the formal report was included. In a detailed summary, the university says they were transitioning compliance responsibilities at the time of the incident.
However, an e-mail string from April of last year shows officials were aware that a report needed to be sent in by someone.
Hammond is calling for maximum penalties to be levied, which could total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not the millions.
"I think the concern is that because the school apparently didn't follow the law and didn't go through the proper procedures to get this problem reported and corrected, that it raises questions about the integrity of the research oversight at Texas A&M," Hammond said.
Texas A&M released a brief statement Monday afternoon, attributing the failure to report the incident to human error. They added that no further comment would be made until the investigation is complete.
The CDC would only confirm their presence on campus, and would not comment on their investigation.
The following is the statement issued by Texas A&M’s Executive Vice President and Provost David B. Prior:
"An internal investigation has confirmed that an occupational exposure to the bacterium that causes brucellosis occurred on our campus and that the individual was successfully treated. We have since strengthened our safety, training and reporting procedures following the human error involved in not reporting this incident.
"An independent review of our processes and procedures will be conducted by representatives of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), who are on campus today (Monday, April 16). We will be fully cooperative and our goal is to comply with all current biosafety standards.
"No university officials will make further comments regarding this incident until our final internal report is issued following the CDC review."