A French laboratory worker has been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) leading to an immediate moratorium on the prion research the worker and others conduct at five public research institutions in France. Lab accidents are as common as they are dangerous.
Prions, misfolded infectious proteins, cause the fatal brain diseases of scrapie in sheep, mad cow disease in cattle, chronic wasting disease in deer and elk and CJD in humans.
While the infected worker is retired, prion research has been halted for three months to determine if a lab accident or exposure explains the illness.
In 2019, a French lab employee who also worked with prions, Émilie Jaumain, died at age 33 of lab-contracted CJD. Jaumain was infected with variant CJD, or vCJD, normally associated with eating prion-contaminated beef, venison or other meat said officials. In humans, CJD can develop spontaneously from no known cause or have genetic causes. Jaumain had stabbed her thumb with an instrument while cleaning a machine she was using to cut brain sections from transgenic mice infected with a sheep-adapted form of mad cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE.
COVID-19 raised focus on lab accidents
Animal disease research in government labs often flies under the public radar. For example few are aware of the existence of the U.S.’ Plum Island Animal Disease Center even though it is located near the northeast coast of New York’s Long Island. During the Nixon era, bioweapons were developed there. Now the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service conducts gain of function like research into vaccines and other countermeasures against foreign animal diseases like vesicular stomatitis virus, foot-and-mouth disease and swine fever.
The 2005 book, “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory,” exposed biological meltdowns, infected workers and virus outbreaks at the facility including lab leaks that were seriously underreported by mainstream media.
Animals are created for laboratories
The creation of transgenic, hybrid and chimeric animals is also underreported.
For example, transgenic mice like those infected with a sheep prion used by Émilie Jaumain are not new and date back to the early “oncomouse” and knock-out mice. “hACE2 mice” were developed to study SARS but interest waned when the COVID-19 predecessor seemed to hide. The mice are now greatly in demand for such research which is back with a vengeance. COVID-19 is, after all, SARS-CoV-2.
Because of the ethical and disease spread/security dangers presented by transspecies experiments, some Western scientists have outsourced such research reported the Sun earlier this year. “Human-monkey hybrids, souped-up viruses, head transplants and gene editing are just some of the tests known to have been carried out by Chinese scientists,” the news outlet wrote.
Lab accidents could spread deadly prions
The prion-caused, brain-based fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), diagnosed in French lab workers, has been confused with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases because of the severe cognitive and mobility impairments it causes.
Though prions lack a nucleus, they reproduce and are almost impossible to obliterate as I reported in my 2012 animal disease expose. Prions are not inactivated by cooking, heat, autoclaves, ammonia, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, phenol, lye, formaldehyde, or radiation and they remain in the soil, contaminating it for years.
The prion-caused chronic wasting disease (CWD) has become epidemic in U.S. deer and elk and humans can catch it though urban communities remain mostly untouched and unaware. Human cases of variant CJD (vCJD) caused by mad cow disease (BSE) in meat that was eaten have occurred in the U.S. but in recent years have been dismissed as “atypical” and thus not requiring herd and offspring searches for “Cow 1.”
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported that prions survive wastewater decontamination and can “end up in discharged treated water” and authorities stopped a 2006 mad cow/BSE study at the National Animal Disease Laboratory in Ames, Iowa for discharging infectious waste into the city’s water-treatment plant because of the prion risks.
Clearly, lab accidents could be a huge risk.
Science labs that deal with prions may believe the waste, if decontaminated, is no longer a threat to public health and safety. Their test or certificate of analysis that says it is ‘clean’ may not be thorough enough.
Waste generated from prion research labs contains PrPSc, a particular strain of the prions. It can be made into other strains by the addition of certain solutions or chemicals. What if it appears in an altered form that current tests can’t detect or identify?
Lab accidents and animal diseases are underreported
It is no surprise that government research into “worst case scenarios” of animal diseases like that at Plum Island is kept top secret. It is also no surprise that prion outbreaks in cattle (which threaten beef producers, exports and financial markets) and in elk and deer (which threaten hunting income and state revenues) are kept secret.
But whether the fatal animal diseases are cultivated in labs, hunting ranges that breed CWD or unhygienic wet/wildlife markets, the possibility of animal-based human pandemics and their variants is the biggest lesson of the 21th century.
This week one-half of deer tested in Michigan were found to harbor COVID-19. As the world learns of once unheard of disease adaptations, how might prions and COVID-19 interact?
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.