An Illinois-based vaccine manufacturer is being investigated after an experiment gone very wrong led scientists to discover the company had released a contaminated product feared capable of starting a world-wide avian flu pandemic.

The Canadian Press reports that Baxter International’s European research facility in Orth-Donau, Austria, supplied materials contaminated with the deadly avian H5N1 influenza virus to a research company that then sent portions to labs in the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Germany.

The labs thought they were receiving the less deadly, but more readily communicable, human H3N2 virus. When the Czech facility, however, injected a group of ferrets with the virus, the animals died – something that does not happen with H3N2 – prompting scientists to realize an error.

What the scientists were dealing with, in fact, was something far more dangerous.

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Baxter’s Austrian lab had sent a mix of H3N2 seasonal viruses and unlabeled, live H5N1 viruses. H3N2 is highly communicable, but less harmful. H5N1 is less easily transmitted to humans, but often lethal. If both strains, scientists fear, were to incubate in a single subject, a hybrid virus could be birthed capable of both sweeping the globe and killing in its wake.

Baxter International, which is based in Deerfield, Ill., said the contamination was the result of an error in its Austrian research facility.

Christopher Bona, Baxter’s director of global bioscience communications, explained it as the result of a combination of “just the process itself, (and) technical and human error in this procedure.”

As for the feared mixing of the viruses, called reassortment, an official of the World Health Organization’s European operation believes the potential disaster was contained.

“We have no evidence of any reassortment, that any reassortment may have occurred,” said medical officer Roberta Andraghetti. “And we have no evidence of any increased transmissibility of the viruses that were involved in the experiment with the ferrets in the Czech Republic.”

The Canadian Press reports the 36 or 37 people exposed to the virus have received medical attention and do not appear to be infected.

Bona further told reporters that Baxter assisted in destroying the contaminated material and cleaning up the European laboratories where it was distributed. He says his company has determined where the error occurred and has taken steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“For this particular incident,” said Dr. Angus Nicoll of the European Center for Disease Control, “the horse did not get out (of the barn).”

Dr. Nicoll, however, also pledged that the ECDC and WHO are taking the matter “seriously.”

The Canadian Press reports investigations are ongoing in each of the four countries where the viruses were shipped, all under the watch of the ECDC and WHO.

The Press also reports that a number of biosecurity experts have expressed dissatisfaction with the explanation of simple error. As a biosafety level 3 facility (out of a maximum of four established safety levels, each requiring different safety precautions), the experts insist, the commingling of human H3N2 and avian H5N1 viruses should not be allowed to happen.

The H5N1 virus, Reuters reports, has infected over 400 people in 15 countries since 2003, killing 254 of them and leading to the culling of millions of birds around the world to contain it.

Baxter International makes flu vaccines – including a human H5N1 vaccine in process of being approved – at a facility in the Czech Republic.


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