University Agrees to Pay $1 Million for Lab Safety Breaches

Texas A&M University agreed to pay the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Health and Human Services an unprecedented $1 million in fines for numerous safety violations in its research program on bioterrorism agents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated the university in 2007 after one of its workers became sick with brucellosis in 2006 and three others were exposed to Q fever. Both diseases are rarely fatal among humans, but they can cause high fever and flu-like symptoms.

According to media reports, A&M failed to report one illness and several infections in its labs for more than a year. In addition, CDC inspections revealed missing vials of brucellosis-causing bacteria Brucella; unauthorized workers with access to infectious diseases; and improper storage of dangerous agents and infected animals. The investigation also found troubling sanitation problems, including an apparent insect infestation in the lab and that lab workers never washed their hands or removed their coats after experiments.

Texas A&M heads the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense, funded by an $18 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security for research on bioterrorism agents.

Texas A&M President Elsa Murano said Feb. 20 she “proposed the large agreement in hopes the matter can be resolved quickly so that the university can resume carrying out its vaccine and related research and, in the process, set new standards nationally for safety and accountability in this area of study.”

Murano also said OIG has accepted the settlement agreement, acknowledging that the university was at fault in letting safety breaches be made. She said she was confident that all safety issues have been addressed.

“We are committed to ensuring the maximum degree of safety and security of all personnel involved in [research] endeavors, just as we are totally committed to the overall safety of everyone – students, faculty, staff and any others – on our campus,” she said.

CDC officials indicated they will make a follow-up visit to the Texas A&M campus in early March to decide if they will lift the suspension.

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