Biological Accidents

First of all, it must be said that information about biological accidents, either in printed or online sources, is very rare. A couple of likely explanations soon emerge. On the one hand, they are hardly ever accepted by those involved, in case social and possible legal liabilities arise. On the other, it is difficult to draw a line between negligence and bad luck. A very clear example is the event in the Russian town of Kirov, where some sources claim there was an anthrax leak into the sewer system from a military facility in 1953. The West remained ignorant of the event, and no casualties are mentioned. However, it seems that a rat with a resistant strain was found several years later and the Soviets developed a more lethal anthrax at Compound 19 in Sverdlovsk (Warner: 16, Croddy and Wirtz: 247-8). There is a lot of confusion about the incident even today. 

A much better documented event happened in the German town of Marburg, thus giving its name to the filovirus. In August 1967, three factory workers of Beringwerke AG, a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical Hoestch AG dedicated to the production of vaccines, began suffering from muscle aches and mild fevers. Although strange for the summer, it all suggested an early outbreak of influenza. However, the symptoms worsened as their spleens enlarged, their eyes became bloodshot, and they became tender to touch. In the following week, their blood would not coagulate, rashes covered their bodies making them extremely sensitive to touch, they had to be fed intravenously because of a raw throat, and acute diarrhoea drained them. By the second week of infection, the patients were vomiting blood and bleeding through every body orifice. Eventually, there were twenty-three reported cases in Marburg, six more in Frankfurt and two in Belgrade, for a total of thirty-one, seven of whom died. 
The WHO investigators traced a connection between the patients: they had handled tissues of sick monkeys arriving from Uganda. The Yugoslav veterinarian had autopsied the monkeys, and the German workers had either killed them or assisted in their post-mortem examination. The rest were secondary infections of some wives, a physician treating them, and a pathologist who made subsequent laboratory analyses. It all seems to point clearly to a working accident caused by utter disregard for the minimum safety standards. Leaving aside whether the company, the workers, or even both should be blamed for such negligence, the risk to the community is more than obvious. Yet, the accident is simply recalled as an “outbreak” by the WHO and the CDC (1). Also, Laurie Garrett barely indicates that “each of the men had handled animals, or the tissue of animals …,” as if the case was just misfortune (1995: 55). Only Frank Ryan dares to state clearly that “handling rules had been broken” because “some had worked with monkeys before they had been kept in quarantine, ignoring the international rules of safety,” and “others had handled monkey tissues and blood without the protection of surgical gloves” (1998: 151). In view of the evidence, even with an acknowledged event naming a lethal virus, the recognition of a biological accident is a decision nobody wants to take. 
Another known case, which has nonetheless never been given much publicity, is the tragic death of Mrs. Janet Parker. A medical photographer, she was exposed to the smallpox virus in the Medical School of the University of Birmingham by a leakage in an air duct between laboratories. She died on 11 September 1978 and Professor Henry S. Bedson, Head of the Department of Medical Microbiology in the university, committed suicide soon afterwards. The customary precautions before the accident amounted to a generalised vaccination of the personnel, but the event led to a stress on a close supervision of biohazard facilities along with the shipments of specimens between laboratories (2). The occurrence is also mentioned in some scientific reports and press articles and Patricia Cornwell makes her bioterrorist a participant of the incident in her novel Unnatural Exposure (Hawkes 1979, Barquet and Domingo 1997, Brown 2004). However, as time goes by, the event has tended to fade and it does not even remain as an example of what should never happen. 
A biological accident that is relatively better known is the Sverdlovsk anthrax leakage of 1979. Formerly and now again Yekaterinburg, this Russian city in the Urals used to hold Compound 19, a powerful facility dedicated to the research into, and production of, biological weapons. The complex may have been created with the expertise gathered after the Soviets entered Pingfang, home to the appalling Unit 731 of the Japanese Army during the Second World War. In late March 1979, a technician removed a clogged filter from the machines that dried anthrax, leaving a written note. Yet, he failed to inform his supervisor, who turned the system on again without protection. It appears that somebody else must have found the missing filter and remounted it but without reporting to the local authorities. During the following days, the workers in a nearby plant fell ill, and almost all of them died within a week. The exact death toll was never known, as all evidence was dutifully erased by the secret service, but it seems that it went well above a hundred casualties. 
Nevertheless, news of the incident reached the international community and a strong debate about whether the event had been a natural outbreak or an accidental exposure. The then authorities claimed that there had been a major ingestion of tainted meat, which had caused the outbreak. This position was shared by Harvard professor Matthew Meselson, who eventually gained access to the area in 1992. But surprisingly, his team concluded that “the narrow zone of human and animal anthrax cases extending downwind from Compound 19 shows that the outbreak resulted from an aerosol that originated there” (1994: 1207). The article was published in Science in 1994 and ultimately demolished the plans of the Russians to obliterate any traces of the accident. Luckily enough, the wind was blowing away from the city on 2 April 1979, the exact day of the leak according to the investigators. Otherwise, the outcome could have been even worse for what is known as the largest biological accident ever recorded. 
In addition, there have been a number of documented incidents involving Ebola. Certainly, the best known is the Reston outbreak, which inspired Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and a famous film featuring some Hollywood celebrities of the time (3). Also, the newly discovered strain of the virus was given the name of the American town. However, it was perhaps the closeness of the event rather than the lack of human casualties that really shocked the Americans. This fact will be demonstrated when analysing the locations of the different novels. On 2 October 1989, a hundred Cynomolgus macaques from the Philippines were flown from Manila to Hazelton Research Products’ Reston Primate Quarantine Unit. They had an unusual death rate and the Head Veterinarian decided to euthanise them all. Although at least four of the workers who had contact with the monkeys turned seropositive for the virus, none fell ill or developed any symptoms of the disease. Still, it has pervaded into the common mind as one of the closest run biological accidents, even though all the standard safety regulations were followed and seemed to be effective. 
According to the WHO (2008b), there have been other ignored accidents with Ebola. There are at least three documented incidents with needles in laboratories around the world. The first two happened at the Microbiological Research Establishment, in Porton, UK, and Fort Detrick, Maryland, USA, in 1976 and 2004 respectively, with both victims recovering successfully. However, the third accident, which took place at the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (Vector), in Koltsovo, Russia, left one victim who died on 19 May 2004. This actually proves how easily the human mind is influenced. While the seriousness of all the Ebola accidents is out of the question, we appear to give much more prominence to events that are closer to our daily lives and brazenly disregard those which seem properly isolated within the walls of a laboratory. 
Finally, two strange outbreaks of haemorrhagic fever in Xinjiang Province near Lop Nor in the late eighties have been suggested as a possible case of biological accident. The former Head of the Soviet/Russian Biopreparat program, Ken Alibek, openly declares that: 

Intelligence sources found evidence of two epidemics of hemorrhagic fever in this area in the late 1980s, where these diseases were previously unknown. Our analysts concluded that they were caused by an accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponizing viral diseases. (and Handleman 1999: 273) 

Although Alibek’s declaration is quoted in other sources, whether it was an accident or a natural occurrence has yet to be proved (4). 
Also, there are less reputed citations of biological releases happening in laboratories worldwide. They involve highly infectious agents, which could cause an epidemic in the country in question. Without factual proof of the events, they remain as suppositions but by no means does this imply that they should be considered less seriously. A good part of truth may be found amongst such talk (5). 


1. The WHO states that “the outbreak was associated laboratory work using African green monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops) imported from Uganda” (2008c). Similarly, the CDC barely mentions that the “outbreaks” of hemorrhagic fever “included laboratory workers as well as several medical personnel and family members who had cared for them” (2006a). 

2. Fenner, F., et al. point out that: 

While unthinkable now, the system, at the time, appeared to provide reasonable safeguards against the chance infection of others in Geneva. The infection of personnel handling specimens, even in laboratories, was uncommon and, until the mid-1970s, laboratory precautions consisted in little more than the vaccination of personnel. The occurrence of smallpox in 1978 in Birmingham, England, in a person exposed to virus carried by an air duct from one room in a laboratory to another demonstrated the need for more stringent precautions. 
Another concern present throughout the course of the programme was that of the possible loss of specimens in shipment. Thanks to a rigorous, continuing check of bills of lading against receipt of shipments, this did not occur, but, as a precaution, specimens sent from Geneva to Moscow and Atlanta were packed in large containers which would be less likely to be mislaid.” (1988: 435) 

3. Outbreak. Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Perfs. Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1995. Accessed 4 December 2008. 

4. In a conference report to the US National Intelligence Council, Eric Croddy, senior research associate at the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute, refers to Alibek’s declaration stating that: 

As for the allegations of the source of outbreaks in Xinjiang, we should be cautious because of the natural occurrence of Xinjiang hemorrhagic fever (HF) endemic to the area, a variant of Crimean-Congo HF of the bunyaviridae-type virus that occasionally strikes in northeastern China, and where a significant outbreak occurred in 1968. But even if we discount the 1980 outbreaks as having military-related origin, we cannot rule out the actual existence of the BW-related facility. The list of declared research and production sites above shows nothing further northeast than Gansu Province. The Soviet Union, in open violation of the BWC, built the largest BW capability thus far known. Given the poor track record of the BWC as it is currently implemented (or more accurately, is not being implemented), China probably is withholding much information about its BW research, although such research primarily may be defensive in nature. (1999: 69-70) 

5. At least two blog entries mention an article entitled “U.S. Mishandling Dirty Germs” by Associated Press, even though the article itself could not be found. The first blog provides a very informative chart from the CDC with the locations of toxic incidents in 44 US labs since 2003. (Butner 2008, Watchdog 2008) 

Works cited: 

Alibek, Kenneth and Stephen Handleman. Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World-Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It. New York: Random House, 1999. 

Barquet, Nicolau and Pere Domingo. “Smallpox: The Triumph over the Most Terrible of the Ministers of Death.” Annals of Internal Medicine. 15 October 1997. 127. 8: 635-642. 

Brown, David. “SARS Cases in Asia Show Labs' Risks.” The Washington Post. 29 May 2004. Retrieved 4 December 2008. 

Butner Blogspot. “I’ll Take that Bet and Raise you 100.” Butner blogspot. 1 March 2008. Retrieved 5 December 2008. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Marburg Haemorrhagic Fever Factsheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2006a. Retrieved 3 December 2008. 

Cornwell, Patricia. Unnatural Exposure. London: Warner Books, 1998 (1997). 

Croddy, Eric. “Chinese Chemical Warfare Capabilities.” US National Intelligence Council. 5 November 1999. Retrieved 4 December 2008. 

----- and James J. Wirtz. Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Encyclopedia of Worldwide Policy, Technology, and History. ABC-CLIO, 2005. 

Fenner, F., et al. Smallpox and its Eradication. Geneva: World Health Organization, 
1988. Retrieved 4 December 2008. 

Garrett, Laurie. The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of 
Balance. New York: Penguin, 1995 (1994). 

Hawkes, N. “Smallpox death in Britain challenges presumption of laboratory safety.”Science. 2 March 1979. 203: 855-856. 

Meselson, Matthew et al. “The Sverdlovsk Anthrax Outbreak of 1979.” Science. 18 November 1994. 266: 1202-8. 

Preston, Richard. The Hot Zone. New York: Anchor Books, 1995 (1994). 

Ryan, Frank. Virus X. London: Harper Collins, 1998 (1996). 

Warner, John ed. Department of Defense Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program: 
Congressional Hearings. DIANE Publishing, 2001. 

Watchdog on Science. “Unreported Biological Accidents.” Watchdog on Science. 3 March 2008. Retrieved 5 December 2008. 

World Health organization. “Marburg Haemorrhagic Fever.” World Health Organization. 2008c. Retrieved 4 December 2008.