By Jonathan Kaminsky
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A Louisiana primate research facility worker was likely exposed to a deadly bacterium stored at an on-site laboratory that earlier sickened three monkeys, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.
The Burkholderia pseudomallei bacterium is stored at a high-security laboratory at the Tulane National Primate Research Center near New Orleans, about half a mile from where thousands of monkeys are kept in a breeding colony housing a veterinary clinic, and federal investigators have been seeking to figure out how it migrated from one place to the other.
Research on the bacterium, being conducted to find a vaccine, has been halted, Tulane has said.
Tests showed that the worker, employed at the clinic where the infected monkeys had been treated, had an amount of antibodies just at the threshold for a verified positive result. More tests will be needed to determine whether the worker was exposed to the bacterium, the CDC said.
There is no indication that the bacterium, which is not easily spread by humans or monkeys, has made it into the surrounding environment, and the risk to the general population is low, said Jason McDonald, a CDC spokesman.
Eight monkeys at the facility have been found to have been accidentally infected with or exposed to the bacterium since late last year.
Three of them were euthanized. The others, including one the CDC announced on Thursday as having been exposed, have shown antibodies indicating exposure but have displayed no symptoms.
The clinic, which has been decontaminated, is believed to be where the monkeys came into contact with the bacterium while being treated for routine illnesses and injuries, the CDC said.
A federal investigator who visited the facility in January tested positive for exposure to the bacterium, but was found to have been exposed to it earlier, likely while traveling in a region where it is endemic, which include parts of Southeast Asia and Australia.
The clinic worker who tested positive was among the workers and monkeys who have been tested in the wake of the breach, the CDC said.
The bacterium can cause a disease called melioidosis in both humans and animals. It has a wide range of symptoms that can be confused with other diseases like tuberculosis or pneumonia, according to the CDC.
A spokesman for Tulane University deferred comment to the CDC.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)