VA Laboratory Policies Under Scrutiny After Death of Vaccine Researcher

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By David Beasley

SAN FRANCISCO — State and federal investigations will determine what, if any, changes in VA laboratory policies will result from the death of a researcher in San Francisco.

The lab at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education at the San Francisco VA Medical Center was closed indefinitely after the 25-year-old researcher died in April from the same type of meningitis for which he was working to develop a vaccine.

Paul Levett, Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control’s Meningitis and Special Pathogens Branch (MSPB), in the National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID), was shown performing a test tube analysis, looking for indications of bacterial growth during a 2005 laboratory test.
CDC photo.

Peter Melton, spokesman for the California Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) , said the researcher had been “working with Gonococcus and Meningococcal bacteria in a laboratory,” and that the VA told investigators the “victim was possibly exposed to meningitis.”

The researcher was working on development of a vaccine for Neisseria meningitis, added Holly Birdsall, MD, PhD, deputy chief researcher and development officer with the VA. This is the form of meningitis seen in outbreaks at college dormitories, she said.

The San Francisco researcher complained of feeling ill after work and asked to be taken to the hospital, Birdsall recounted. He was taken to the VA Hospital emergency room and died within a few hours. Meningitis “moves very, very quickly,” Birdsall pointed out.

Neisseria meningitidis is a leading cause of bacterial meningitis in the United States, causing overwhelming sepsis, purpura fulminans, or sometimes benign meningococcemia.

Approximately 10-14% of cases of meningococcal disease are fatal. Of patients who recover, 11-19% have permanent hearing loss, mental disabilities, loss of limbs or other severe sequelae, according to public-health information.

In addition to internal review at VA, California’s OSHA, the California Department of Public Health, San Francisco Department of Health and the U.S. Occupational and Safety Health Administration are all investigating the death, said Melton.

The death came as a shock at VA, because fatalities from laboratory-acquired infections are “extremely rare,” said Birdsall. “Nobody [at the VA] could remember there being an instance of this nature.”

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