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  December 3, 2001

Concerns Aroused by Pathobiology Specimens

Test results on two vials of materials, presumed to contain anthrax, and on environmental samples taken from the Pathobiology Building last Tuesday, were expected to be released after press time late last week. [UPDATE: The building re-opened on Thursday, December 6.]

Test results were released after press time on Friday, November 30. President Philip Austin issued a message to the University Community regarding those results. Please go to the message page.

The results will determine when the building, located on North Eagleville Road, will be reopened.

An investigation into the presence of anthrax in the Pathobiology Building began when the FBI, the state police and the UConn police closed the building down at about 3:30 p.m. and the state Department of Environmental Protection removed the two vials. The vials and environmental samples, taken to determine whether anthrax was present inside the building, were transported to the laboratories of the state Department of Public Health.

"Until the investigation is completed and we are assured that the facility is safe, the building will remain closed," Chancellor John D. Petersen said last week. He said he chose the most conservative approach - closing the building and testing for anthrax - in order to assure the safety of the campus community: "Although we have no reason to believe that the building is unsafe, the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff are paramount," he said.

Classes in the building were canceled on Wednesday and will be relocated until the building reopens.

Anthrax samples were discovered early in October in a freezer that was failing. It is likely they originally developed from a 1968 necropsy of a cow that died of naturally occurring anthrax on a Connecticut farm.

Since the UConn cultures were not associated with any research project, they were destroyed by autoclaving (sterilizing), which kills bacteria and their spores. The test tubes or vials were then disposed of through a licensed handler off campus.

The two vials removed by the DEP are believed to be part of the 1968 anthrax sample batch. Police are investigating why they were not destroyed. When the police investigation is completed, the University will consider whether or not disciplinary action or academic misconduct charges are warranted.

To determine the potential risk of anthrax exposure, the DPH asked the University to identify UConn experts in laboratory procedures, including faculty from the Health Center, to work with DPH staff to review the laboratory procedures that were used in handling the materials. The committee included John Murphy, medical laboratory consultant, Division of Health Systems Regulation, at DPH; Theresa Christina, supervision medical lab consultant, also of the Division of Health Systems Regulation; Kumar Venkitanarayanan, assistant professor of animal sciences; and John Shanley, director of the Division of Infectious Disease at the UConn Health Center.

The committee interviewed faculty, graduate students, and staff of the department who were involved in destroying the anthrax samples, and managers of the University's Department of Environmental Health and Safety.

After completing the interviews on Wednesday night, the committee found that the staff handling the material had been appropriately trained, that the materials had been handled properly in appropriate facilities, and that the anthrax had been destroyed in conformance with the procedures outlined for such disposal by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Anthrax occurs in several different forms. The anthrax samples destroyed in pathobiology were derived from naturally occurring skin anthrax in the bacillary form. If the vials contain the same form of anthrax, they could pose a danger to humans through direct contact with open wounds in the skin or by ingestion. The vials that were removed were sealed. However, had the vials been opened and the contents spilled, then the anthrax could potentially have been spread within the building. Anthrax is not readily spread from person to person.

Karen A. Grava