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Islanders help beat deadly viruses

April 8, 2009

By Thomas Ksiazek

The Daily News

A recent incident at a maximum-containment research facility in Hamburg, Germany, illustrates that, despite extreme care, extensive training and increasing scrutiny, unintended accidents albeit rarely do happen. Given that to err is human, the true test of responsible research practice lies in a speedy reaction, aggressive mitigation and transparency in the face of such an incident.

When a Hamburg laboratory scientist, using live Ebola viruses in research, received an accidental prick from a needle several weeks ago, the world research community responded. The result an alarming accident appears to have ended in a fortunate outcome.

Immediately upon exposure, the scientist and staff at the Bernard-Nocht Institute initiated emergency procedures to determine the extent of exposure, reduce the danger of infection and initiate medical consultation. The incident was quickly reported to the laboratory's senior scientists and administrators, and word went out worldwide to experts studying the Ebola virus both in the laboratory and in outbreaks in Africa. These scientists, including some of us at the University of Texas Medical Branch, were called on to determine the most appropriate means of helping the exposed scientist and protecting the public.

Despite a world community actively working toward effective treatments for the Ebola viruses, options for treatment today remain limited. Fortunately, the researchers in Hamburg were aware of recent reports of a vaccine developed by scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory BSL-4 lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba, that was effective in preventing Ebola infections in research settings, much like the scenario faced by their colleague. This vaccine, though still in development, was determined the best possible course of action and urgently shipped to Germany.

Thanks to that speedy reaction and open collaboration, the scientist who suffered the needle stick remains well after 21 days. Efforts are now under way to determine whether the researcher was actually infected by Ebola virus, if the experimental vaccine was responsible for protecting the scientist from Ebola fever and what degree of immunity the experimental vaccine gave the vaccinated scientist.

The medical branch's expertise, gained from outbreak investigations in Africa and experimentally in our BSL-4 labs, was a part of the solution. The director for biodefense at UTMB's center for biodefense and emerging infectious diseases, Dr. C. J. Peters, the director of UTMB's Robert E. Shope laboratory, Mike Holbrook, and I, as director of Galveston National Lab, were among the small group of scientists from around the world who were engaged in this case.

Research saves lives. Even in laboratories of the highest biosafety levels with careful research practices, accidents can happen. The Hamburg incident may have occurred on foreign soil but local expertise helped select a course of treatment and, perhaps collectively with the world community, moved us further along the path toward a cure for one of the world's deadliest diseases.

Thomas G. Ksiazek is director of the National Biodefense Training Center at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

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