Institute admits lax handling of pathogens
A state laboratory handled hundreds of hazardous pathogens beyond its capabilities, ordered workers to keep the dangers secret, and did not tell part-timers about the potentially lethal risks, The Asahi Shimbun has learned.
|Shingo Ichimura, right, a vice president at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, apologizes with other officials Wednesday for lax management of pathogens. (THE ASAHI SHIMBUN)|
The violations of inhouse rules and the clandestine practices continued for years at the International Patent Organism Depositary (IPOD) in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.
As of 2001, IPOD kept about 300 types of pathogens that could damage human health, including some considered as potentially lethal as the anthrax bacteria, according to internal documents obtained by the newspaper and other sources.
Part-time workers at the facility were assigned to test and cultivate the pathogens in facilities not well equipped for infection prevention.
A senior IPOD official who pointed out the risks to management was repeatedly told not to tell others. And the government's supervisory entities took no steps even after learning of the fact as early as 2001.
Officials of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), to which IPOD belongs, apologized at a news conference Wednesday.
"There were defects in our management, and we are in deep remorse," one executive said.
AIST Vice President Shingo Ichimura said the organization would apologize to former workers even though "it has turned out that there were no health problems."
AIST falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
IPOD is commissioned to receive and preserve cells and microorganisms relevant to patent applications.
Until 2004, IPOD's internal rules said the lab could accept only pathogens classified on the lowest biohazard level of the World Health Organization's standards.
IPOD facilities were not sufficiently equipped for infection prevention required under WHO standards for pathogens of hazard level 2 or higher.
But according to the documents obtained by The Asahi Shimbun, IPOD kept 296 strains of pathogens banned by the inhouse rules as of 2001.
Three strains--two Brucella strains and one glanders (Burkholderia mallei) strain--that the lab received after 1984 belonged to the potentially lethal level 3.
Up until 1999, eight workers, including female part-timers, were assigned to test or cultivate those level-3 pathogens in ordinary labs.
They were not informed of the strains' potentially lethal risks, according to sources.
In addition, anyone could enter the IPOD facilities.
AIST executives said the inhouse rules were not well known among IPOD workers in those days. The executives also ruled out any infection from the three level-3 strains.
A senior IPOD official learned of the problems in 2001 and asked AIST, the industry ministry and the Patent Office to take measures.
Around that time, fears of bioterrorism using anthrax bacteria, a level-3 pathogen, were raging in the United States. The official also called for steps to confirm the health of former workers.
But Ichimura, then at the AIST's planning headquarters, repeatedly told the official not to act without further instructions from him nor to discuss the matter with others, the sources said.
Ichimura gave similar instructions to other IPOD officials in an e-mail message. The Asahi Shimbun obtained a copy of a message apparently sent by Ichimura.
Ichimura admitted to the newspaper that IPOD did accept pathogens in violation of its rules and had (part-time) workers test them.
"But we concluded that telling the truth would have given psychological damage to those who tested them without knowing anything," he said. "So we didn't tell them."
In 2004, IPOD isolated the level-3 strains in a fire-resistant, sealed cool box. It also improved its equipment so that it could deal with level-2 pathogens.
In June this year, the revised infectious diseases prevention law took effect, making the three level-3 strains at IPOD subject to anti-terrorism regulations.
The regulations only allow facilities with sufficient infection prevention systems to keep level-3 strains.
IPOD disposed of its strains on May 31, one day before the revised law went into force.
Meanwhile, the whistle-blower, who has since retired, repeatedly called the Patent Office and others for steps to rectify the situation, apparently using lists of pathogens in IPOD's care.
The official was then criticized for taking out "(confidential) information" and was urged to sign a written pledge to never again violate the law on public servants, the sources said.
At Wednesday's news conference, Ichimura said AIST will try to locate former workers and apologize for "not telling the truth."
AIST would also apologize to Tsukuba city, officials said.(IHT/Asahi: October 18,2007)