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Labs scramble to purge virus

Samples sent out worldwide traced to 1957 pandemic

Mayo Clinic
• Influenza
Flu Season
World Health Organization (WHO)

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Authorities are doing everything possible to ensure samples of a killer influenza virus sent to more than 4,000 laboratories worldwide are destroyed before anyone becomes infected, a top U.S. disease expert says.

"While the risk of the situation is very low, we're not taking any chances and we're doing everything we can to make sure that there is no threat to human health," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday.

On September 10, the College of American Pathologists sent samples of the virus that caused the "Asian flu" pandemic of 1957 to laboratories in 18 countries, including the United States and Canada.

The pandemic killed more than 1 million people, including about 70,000 in the United States.

The samples, part of a package of pathogens sent to laboratories to test their ability to identify them, were last seen in nature in the United States in 1968, Gerberding said. Anyone born since then would presumably have no immunity to the virus, she said.

Authorities are still trying to determine how many laboratories got the samples of the virus, called Influenza A H2N2.

"We're working with officials in all of these countries to take the steps necessary to contain the problem," she said.

Those steps include identifying the panels that contain the virus and destroying those samples by heating them.

Routine disease surveillance so far has turned up no unusual patterns that might indicate the disease had spread in the United States, she said.

CDC: Raise safety level

In addition, the CDC recommended that laboratories that have received the virus samples use safety level 3 precautions in handling them.

Current recommendations require only that they be handled under less-stringent safety level 2 precautions.

The World Health Organization has contacted the ministries of health of the other 17 countries "to be sure that similar processes are in place" in all labs affected.

How the virus wound up being included in a package of pathogens sent around the world was not clear, but Gerberding said health authorities would work to ensure such a lapse did not recur.

Organizations responsible for testing and accrediting laboratories' quality routinely send out panels of unknown organisms to determine if the laboratory can accurately identify them.

In this case, the College of American Pathologists contracted with Meridian Bioscience Inc., of Cincinnati, Ohio, to create the panel, Gerberding said.

"It is almost impossible to believe they didn't know they were dealing with an H2N2," she added.

"It was probably a situation where the advantages of using a strain that grows well and can be readily manipulated in the lab were the driving force without even considering that ... it could potentially cause a hazard to not only the workers in the laboratory, but to the people in the community."

Gerberding said she did not know who made that decision. A company spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Most of the samples have been destroyed, she said.

Found by Canadian lab

It was not until March 26 that a laboratory in Canada discovered the presence of the virus and alerted Canadian health officials, who in turn notified the World Health Organization and CDC, Gerberding said.

Five days later, the lab was advised "to undertake a full stem-to-stern assessment" and, on April 8, the lab determined that the panels were the source, Gerberding said.

The threat had gone unnoticed for more than six months because the labs that received the panels would have characterized the virus only as an A or B strain and would not necessarily have characterized it further, she said.

The laboratories have been asked to report back to the college when the specimens have been destroyed, a process "that will take some time," Gerberding said.

Dr. Jared Schwartz, a spokesman for the College of American Pathologists, which distributed the virus, acknowledged its distribution was a mistake.

He said records indicate the vendor knew it was sending a flu virus but apparently did not realize it was the deadly strain.

In addition to the United States and Canada, the other countries that got the panels are Bermuda, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Taiwan. It also went to Hong Kong.

Schwartz said his organization will ask the CDC to approve strains sent out for testing in the future, and that samples will be limited to pathogens covered by current vaccines.

"This is the first time, thank God, that we have had, in any of our proficiency testing, issues focused on as a potential problem," he said. "It's regrettable, and a lot of communication needs to be improved to be sure that this doesn't happen again. And we're going to be working with the CDC to make sure of that."

Laurie Garrett, author of "The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance," said the mistake underscores problems with the U.S. public health safety net.

"We've invested billions of dollars into alleged bioterrorism preparedness and to alleged preparedness for avian and pandemic influenza," she said. "This is a sorry indicator of how well the money has been spent."

CNN's Miriam Falco contributed to this report.

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