Hump-day cock-ups – Q fever at SA pathology

OK, guys. Medical science is awesome. Medical scientists have saved more lives through washing hands, antibiotics and vaccines than all the wars in humankind have taken. We have wiped smallpox off the face of the earth and are going well with polio and TB. BUT, that isn’t to say all scientists are great. Just like every field, there are fantastic people who have cancer-curing lightning shoot out of their arse and people who are wastes of carbon. Human stupidity is a disease of sorts and I thought it would be a good idea to explore some of the cock-ups scientists have made in a new series of articles that I’ve dubbed “Hump-day Cock-ups“.

 

First up is a topical news story that happened just across the road from us. A couple of weeks ago, the bacteria causing Q fever was releasedout into the open and at least two people (apparently and anecdotally four people now, but I’m not paid enough for journalistic integrity) ended up sick from it. Thankfully, they both recovered. This is basically the equivalent to The Army accidentally dropping a loaded M16 out onto the street. It is a Very Big Bad Thing. I’ll explain why.

Medical labs are categorised into one of 4 protective containment (PC) levels, which determine what kind of microbes you’re allowed to work with in those areas:

  • PC1 – Not allowed to work with disease-causing microorganisms.
  • PC2 – Can work with microbes that cause disease as long as it’s mild, easily treated or hard to catch from aerosols. Examples of diseases you can work with in PC2 labs: Hepatitis B, Salmonella, influenza. (Both James and I work in PC2 labs)
  • PC3 – Can work with microbes that can kill you but aren’t a threat to the community at large because they aren’t easily transmissible. Examples of diseases you can work with in PC3 labs: Q fever, anthrax and HIV.
  • PC4 – The highest rating. You can work with stuff that will kill you, your family and your neighbour’s dog without even blinking an eye. As a precaution, new diseases are studied here then downgraded if need be. Examples of diseases you can work with in PC4 labs: Ebola, smallpox, Swine flu.

Now, here’s the place where I would insert some abuse, but I E-mailed James a draft of this article and he replied thus:

“Topical? Yes.
Enlightening? Somewhat.
Goes a bit far? definately
I probably wouldnt start calling people dickbags on our blog, that mighe land us in the shit… Otherwise the basic premise of reporting on scientific going-ons, including fuck ups, is a good idea. Lets just leave the abuse out.

– James”
So I’ve gone back and altered some words to be less abusive…

On further conversations with my peers, I’ve chosen to retract my earlier opinion and statements. Happy, James?

PC3 are fairly high security places (as you can imagine, dealing with anthrax and all that). This breakdown in the biocontainment chain is going to make someone very much in trouble, as we rely on these biocontainment procedures to stop exposure of the public to pathogens that we study. It’s also going to tighten laws regarding laboratory procedure, not just at SA Pathology, but also around SA (e.g. The lab that I am in now).  And absolutely noone is a dickbag.

OK, I’m done. I’ll save up my anger for another week. See you next time.

-TT

 

P.S. Oh by the way, I’ll do a little summary on Q fever before I leave. Most people respond to treatment (composed of antibiotics) of Q fever, but some can get chronic fatigue syndrome or endocarditis, inflammation of the inner layer of the heart. The latter is permanent, disabling, untreatable damage. It’s in the PC3 classification because it’s very easy to transmit by aerosolisation. It only takes a few bacteria to cause an infection.

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10 Comments

Filed under Thomas' Corner

10 responses to “Hump-day cock-ups – Q fever at SA pathology

  1. Well, that was a load of rubbish. Weren’t you the person who once, in complete disregard of safety protocols, wandered in to our lab tainted with radioactive p32 looking for a good time? – I didn’t use that door handle for months.

    My subtle point being, you don’t actually know what went on here – so anything you actually say is idle speculation. Obviously something went wrong at some point, or several points. But whether that was down to individual error or insufficient safety protocols is not yet in the public domain. I’m not sure it’s libel, but I’d at least hold off until the official report is released by the S.A government (which will be after the election in March.)

    *Dismounts high horse*

    • thomastu

      Well, yes, that is true. And I got rightfully caned for it. There’s more radiation coming from parliament house, in any case.

      The point is, however, that PC3 labs there is an expectation of exponentially higher security and biocontainment than us in the PC2 labs and staffing with more skilled people than honours students. Also, when working with infectious organisms, it’s always been important to both clean up after yourself and contain the organism, whatever it is. That obviously did not happen here and it is basic lab protocol. OK, I don’t expect an immunologist to understand, but take it from me as true (tongue in cheek, sir). It’s my opinion that we don’t need more protocols, just people following them.

  2. Bowen

    Woo-hoo!
    Go, Free Speech!
    … oh, hang on the line a moment … ah … it seems that is one of many “rights” that Australians don’t have.
    For a list of “rights” that we do (still) have please check … no, wait … ah – it seems it would be best not to ask questions.
    kind regards.
    Anonymous.

  3. Uwe

    Well I must agree with Thomas, although not all the information is available and probably never will be made public (100% info. hidden by the respective authorities), he has ever right to vent his spleen on this. This sort of breach of PC3 protocol is just not acceptable, we are already regulated to buggery and this will only make our lives even harder, anyone who thinks that this will not have flow on effects for people working in either PC2 or PC3 labs is kidding themselves. Well if nothing else it supports my long held view that a significant number of people employed are simply not up to the task, or are not trained properly for their respective tasks.

    • I couldn’t agree more. There are lots of incompetent people, and in certain industries they are a hazard to themselves and others. Unlike TT though (priot to his editing) I don’t advocate their slaughter, but instead think a more humane outcome (subjectively) would be to train these people better in the first place, and if they suck move them on. I just don’t think we should be planning how to dismember the corpses before anyone has been proven guilty of negligence.

      I’ll be honest though, the cramp on creativity by excessive regulation is not a good thing, and probably goes some way to explaining the low scientist retention rate over the long run.

      Topical issue, ey?

      • thomastu

        A little bit of hyperbole never hurt anyone… unless it is misinterpreted, which is what ended up convincing me to scale it back a bit. To be clear, I agree with your treatment of people who suck at keeping the science safe, lumpy.

        However, on your point of cramping creativity by excessive regulation, I wouldn’t have thought that this was really relevant. I’m not sure that this will affect the creativity of science per se. You will probably be able to do whatever (ethical) experiments you could really want and conform to guidelines. I am more worried about the additional time it will take to do such experiments.

        I don’t think it’s really appreciated in the public about how much time it actually takes to do good science; to design appropriate controls, to optimise techniques, to interpret results well. A single sentence in a research paper could have taken months and months of hard work. It’s certainly something I’ve learnt during my time in the lab.

        With more and more regulation, more and more of our efforts and time go into paperwork rather than research. And since research grants are usually only offered over 3 years, time is at a very high premium. Of course, this is coming from a PhD student who has been writing this blog for no money and using up countless hours that may have been better spent working on a thesis.

        TT

  4. Hmm.. speaking of pathology lab cockups- I was gobsmacked several years ago when a relation of mine who works as a technician in a South Australian private lab caught meningococcal disease that progressed to meningitis. Although it happened in the middle of an “outbreak” it still took 3 visits by a locum and a call to Ambulance SA by the (extremely distressed and dissatisfied) spouse to get the correct medical attention. At that stage the person was intermittently unconscious and the characteristic splotches of purple had appeared on the skin. After touch and go in intensive care and a coma for a week (I think), things started to look up. After rehabilitation for speech, cognition and walking, a long holiday and a lot of thought, the person went back to work (in three different simultaneous jobs, only one of which was at the lab). I think financial compensation was involved… Yikes!!

  5. I spilt bacteria once

    That was a more inflammatory reaction than I would have expected from The Advertiser.

    Knock-on effects really suck, like what happened with the uni’s insurance and OH&S after the horrible incident when the marine biology guy got munched by a shark. It’s an interesting story which I hadn’t heard about, but please wait for some facts before bringing out the lynch mob, otherwise your blog can’t take the authoritative high ground over news stories reporting the latest bit of ‘climategate’ or confusing bacteria and viruses!

    …sorry to just be making a negative comment, your other stories were good!

  6. thomastu

    Yes, my intention of this post was to point out what biosafety is, how seriously it really is taken by scientists (by showing some outrage) and that we aren’t just bumbling egg-heads with no common sense, all by using a topical story. I readily admit now that it may have gone a bit far (pre-edit). I will, however, leave this post up to show that scientists, like actual people, can misjudge as well.

    TT

    • I spilt bacteria once

      Yeah, I agree! And like it ALL except for the “dickbag” bit; by leaving in the writing that you’ve decided on second thoughts not to call someone a dickbag, makes it really obvious you were calling them a dickbag in the first place.

      That’s the beauty of the internet – unlike newspaper/radio/television you can edit mistakes out later. When certain well known science magazine has a mistake pointed out in an online story then they edit it – it enhances rather than damages credibility.

      [To try and explain with a tangential analogy: it’s a bit like how libel laws work; Fred can be sued for saying something defamatory, but you can also be sued for repeating the defamation, eg if you report what Fred said about whom.]

      Okay, so now you’re thinking I’m a lame wowser, but I think it’s a tiny difference in language that could make or break you as a credible source of information you’d let your children/students read. A story like this can have a high impact even without the insults.

      Ideas for future outrage: How about the recent foot and mouth outbreak from the lab in England? Or (if you want to be really controversial) the dangers of someone from overseas bring in TB? Oh, wait, that’s already happened in the MLS!

      and please feel free to leave this or my other post off the blog. They’re just FYI. [I know if I ever see this later I’ll cringe for writing such an excessive long rant.]

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