A&M to Pay $1 Million for Safety Failures at Biodefense Labs

Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas) has agreed to pay a record $1 million fine for safety failures at its biodefense laboratories that were shut down last year after a Centers for Disease Control investigation stripped the university of its certification. University President Elsa Murano said on Feb. 20 that the school had reached an agreement with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and would promptly pay the $1 million with research-compliance dollars in the hope that the 7-month-old suspension on lab activities would be lifted. OIG said it is the largest fine the agency has ever assessed for violations of rules governing the handling of select agents used in biodefense research.

"We are 100 percent committed to transparency in how we conduct research at Texas A&M, and we are committed to ensuring the maximum degree of safety and security of all personnel involved in such endeavors, just as we are totally committed to the overall safety of everyone--students, faculty, staff and any others--on our campus," said Murano, who assumed the Texas A&M presidency last month.

Murano, formerly the undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, added, "Our vaccine and therapeutic research, although relatively small in terms of actual dollars, representing less than 1 percent of our $570 million in annual research expenditures, is, nonetheless, a significant and critical part of our efforts to protect the citizens of our community, state and nation from those who may choose to do us harm." A&M said that in response to the CDC's findings during a visit to the labs last August, the university has enhanced staffing and oversight of its lab facilities, improved the training of research personnel, implemented more stringent procedures for gaining lab access, and established procedures for unscheduled inspections.

According to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram report, CDC began taking an interest in A&M after a biodefense watchdog group last year uncovered documents showing that three people at the university had been exposed to the Q fever organism, a highly infectious bacterium that is considered a potential terrorist threat, as well as an earlier incident in which a researcher became ill from Brucella, a group of bacteria that CDC also consider a bioterrorism agent. A&M's EH&S manager resigned on the same day that CDC issued its report, the Star-Telegram notes.

CDC officials have indicated they will make a follow-up visit to the A&M campus in early March, the university said.

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