CDC report author contradicts findings

Researcher infected with E. coli O157:H7 wasn't responsible for experiment, he says

By | June 21, 2005

One of the authors of a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that blamed a former government researcher for overseeing an experiment that almost killed her has contradicted that report, saying the team knew all along that it was another researcher's experiment, not hers. But he also said he did not believe the experiment was what caused her infection, and criticized her working habits.

"We knew it wasn't her experiment," CDC safety and occupational health specialist Dana Jones said yesterday (June 20) of former US Department of Agriculture researcher Ru-ching Hsia. "I don't think we ever even thought that. Is that in our report? Because I don't remember us saying that." The report does not mention any researcher but Hsia.

The report also claimed that Hsia was the official supervisor of the technician who performed the experiment, but Jones said that was incorrect. "We knew he didn't work for her," Jones told The Scientist.

Jones defended the technician, Santiago Rossi, who, working on Hsia's and his bench and not under a hood, spun out excess liquid E. coli O157:H7 and sanitizer from apple slices in home salad spinners. Hsia became infected with the virulent E. coli strain shortly thereafter. Asked if he thought the experiment was safe, Jones said, "I think so," with the exception that "it should have been done under the hood."

Jones said a reenactment of the experiment designed by investigators and performed by Rossi convinced him the salad spinners had nothing to do with her infection, because plates placed around them never became contaminated. Asked how she got infected, he said, "I have no idea."

But Hsia and other microbiologists say the reenactment results cannot be believed, because the investigators had Rossi conduct the experiment under a biosafety hood, use one salad spinner instead of three, and use a harmless bacteria, not O157. "It seems to me it's a very hard conclusion to make unless you do the experiment in an identical way," said Stanley Maloy, president-elect of the American Society for Microbiology.

Jones harshly criticized Hsia's lab biosafety habits, calling her work bench "an accident waiting to happen." He said she violated the CDC's rule book, Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL) by reusing her lab gloves instead of disposing of them at least at the end of each day.

But Hsia, citing the BMBL passage that "gloves are worn when hands may contact potentially infectious materials, contaminated surfaces or equipment," said yesterday that she reuses gloves whenever she does molecular biology work because the purpose is to keep human skin from biasing results, not to protect against pathogens. She said her work bench was safe.

Hsia said she told the CDC researchers that in her 20 years of experience, what she does is what other microbiologists also do. "No it's not," Jones said. "Everybody here heard that and they go, 'What the hell?'"

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