Lab Error Discovered By Another Lab Error

This week’s discovery that the deadly H2N2 virus was accidentally shipped to labs a few months back wasn’t exactly a brilliant piece of detective work:

Yesterday, it emerged that the potentially deadly distribution was discovered only through a combination of luck and human error at a laboratory in Vancouver, Canada.

The original mistake was made in October last year in Northfield, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, home to the headquarters of the College of American Pathologists.
[…]
The virus went to Bermuda, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, the Korean Republic, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Taiwan and labs in the US.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, technicians ran a sample from the panel containing H2N2 under the same flume hood as a sample from a patient – a practice that would not be allowed in many laboratories because of the risk of contamination, Frank Plummer, director of the National Microbiological Laboratory said.

The patient sample became contaminated. “The panel sample has very very high level of virus,” Canada’s chief public health officer, David Butler-Jones, said. “There was enough that it gave a low-level positive result in the patient sample.”

Mr Plummer went on to reveal that the patient in Vancouver was not suffering flu symptoms, and the test was administered as a matter of routine. The sample then was forwarded to the national laboratory – again a matter of pure chance as regional facilities generally send only 25% of their samples for the more detailed analysis capable of identifying the flu strain as the deadly H2N2.

“There is certainly a kind of irony here,” Mr Plummer said yesterday, “but it is a happy sort of error.”

So the mistake was caught by another mistake. And the second mistake was only caught because the contaminated sample was among the 25% of samples sent on to a national lab for analysis.

Thank God. Because human ingenuity had nothing to do with this one.

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