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Previous to revelations just weeks ago that American vaccine company Baxter Inc "accidentally" shipped out vaccines contaminated with live avian flu virus, a similar incident was reported in 2005.
In April of that year, both the New Scientist and AP reported that the virus that caused the 1957 "Asian flu" pandemic, which killed 1 million to 4 million people, was "accidentally" released by a lab in the US, and sent all over the world in test kits.
The New Scientist report states:
The flu testing kits were sent to some 3700 labs between October 2004 and February 2005 by the College of American Pathologists (CAP), a professional body which helps pathology laboratories improve their accuracy, by sending them unidentified samples of various germs to identify.
The CAP kits - prepared by private contractor Meridian Bioscience in Cincinnati, US - were to contain a particular strain of influenza A - the viral family that causes most flu worldwide. But instead of choosing a strain from the hundreds of recently circulating influenza A viruses, the firm chose the 1957 pandemic strain.
Because the 1957 H2 flu strain was replaced by another new strain in 1968, anyone born after that date has no immunity to it.
"...any escape of the virus in the test kits could be as lethal to them as the Asian flu of 1957." the report stated at the time.
Because such test kits are routine and do not contain dangerous viruses, they are not handed at a high level of biological containment. Therefore the chances of the virus escaping the lab were high and scientists scrambled to find and destroy the potentially lethal samples.
Despite these facts, the federal government downplayed the possibility of foul play. From the AP report:
Dr. Nancy Cox, chief of the influenza branch at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said her agency was notified of the situation on Friday morning. She also said officials strongly doubted that someone deliberately planted the strain or that it was an act of bioterrorism.
"It wouldn't be a smart way to start a pandemic to send it to laboratories, because we have people well trained in biocontainment," Dr. Cox said.
The New Scientist report also points to another "accident" in 1970 when a H1 flu strain, the cause of the 1918 pandemic, was believed to have escaped from a faulty batch of live flu vaccine prepared in a Russian lab.
Just last month, health authorities and industry groups reviewing European lab safety standards concluded in a new report that research on dangerous pathogens needs to be more strictly monitored.
With all these "accidents" in mind, in addition to reports of the 1918 "Spanish flu" having originated at Fort Riley in Kansas, further scares such as the 1976 swine flu incident which originated at a military base, and clear evidence of attempts by the military to culture influenza as a bio weapon, handling reconstructed versions of lethal strains at less than the maximum level of containment, it is absolutely essential that any new outbreak be questioned with this information in mind.