GRADUATE STUDENT was alone in the lab on a Saturday, handling a mouse infected with a debilitating virus, when the needle slipped. She wore two gowns, two pairs of shoe covers, a hair net, a face mask, and two pairs of gloves. Gingerly, she had pointed the needle at the mouse’s abdomen and injected the antibody. The animal was infected with a recombinant strain of Chikungunya virus, a mosquito-borne pathogen that has sparked epidemics in Africa and the Caribbean. Chikungunya can wreak havoc in other regions when the right kind of mosquito is present; in 2007 and 2017 there were outbreaks in Italy, and in 2014 the virus hit Florida, infecting 11 people who had not recently traveled abroad. In January 2016, nine months before the researcher stood in the lab that weekend, a locally acquired infection was diagnosed in Texas.
Chikungunya, which means “bent over in pain” in the Makonde language, can lead to chronic arthritis, and its spread through the Americas had made studying it more urgent. The researcher’s team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, was studying the virus in the hope of discovering possible treatments or developing a vaccine. The graduate student was working in a biosafety level 3 lab, a level that often includes a completely sealed perimeter, directional airflow, and full personal protective equipment. But accidents still happened. The team’s experiments were set back when, after withdrawing the needle from the mouse’s belly, the graduate student grazed a finger on her left hand.
The needle pierced through both sets of gloves, but the student saw no blood, so she washed her hands, removed her safety equipment, and left the lab without telling anyone what had happened. Four days later, she ran a fever, and her body ached and convulsed in chills. The next morning, her skin was flecked with discolored spots. They multiplied over the course of the day, so she went to the emergency room, where the doctors kept her overnight for observation. A nurse drew her blood and sent it off to a state lab. She tested positive for Chikungunya. Only after getting sick did the student tell her supervisor about the slipped needle.
“That’s not a good situation,” said Scott Weaver, director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and an expert on Chikungunya virus. “If that person knew they had a needlestick and they were working with Chikungunya, they should have reported it immediately. And then whatever health care people saw them should have recognized that there was a very small — but not zero — risk of them transmitting the virus.”
After the student told her supervisor about the accident in September 2016, Washington University reported it to the National Institutes of Health, but until now, the event has remained out of public view. So have hundreds of other incidents in U.S. labs, including four other needle injuries at Washington University.
An Intercept investigation based on over 5,500 pages of NIH documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act has uncovered a litany of mishaps: malfunctioning equipment, spilled beakers, transgenic rodents running down the hall, a sedated macaque coming back to life and biting a researcher hard enough to lacerate their hand. Many of the incidents involved less dangerous pathogens that can be handled with basic safety equipment, and most did not lead to infection. But several accidents happened while scientists were handling deadly or debilitating viruses in highly secure labs, and a few, like the Chikungunya virus slip-up, did lead to illness.
“People have it in their minds that lab accidents are very, very rare, and if they happen, they happen only in the least well-run overseas labs,” said Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and an advocate for better biosafety standards. “That simply isn’t true.”https://theintercept.com/2022/11/01/biosafety-lab-accident-chikungunya-virus/