According to a letter from FedEx to federal regulators, the shipping giant is no longer willing to transport packages containing research specimens of bioterror pathogens.
FedEx communications director Melissa Charbonneau said in a recent statement that the decision came in response to concerns over the military’s recent shipments of anthrax. Now, the company is no longer planning to resume shipments of “select agents,” the federal government’s term for 65 different types of viruses, bacteria, and toxins highly regulated because of their bioterror potential. In addition to anthrax, Ebola, and the pathogens causing plague and botulism are also considered special agents.
FedEx’s refusal to ship special agents concerns major laboratory officials, who say that they primarily used FedEx to ship and receive critical samples used to diagnose diseases, and develop vaccines, treatments, tests, and detection equipment.
“It potentially is a devastating blow,” said Galveston National Laboratory director James Le Duc. He explained that shipping is crucial to infectious-disease research, as labs need to be able to get pathogens found in the wild, in faraway reaches of the world. “Everybody is kind of dumbfounded that this has happened.”
Worse, the inability to quickly ship would be devastating in the event of a disease caused by potential bioterror pathogen.
“If that were to happen now, most public health labs could not ship specimens overnight to CDC, and the national public health response would be disrupted and delayed,” explained Eric Blank, a senior director with the Association of Public Health Laboratories.
Currently, there are more than 17 million shipping containers in circulation around the world. Such commercial carriers are commonly used to ship specimens. According to the Federal Select Agent Program’s website, there have been around 4,250 transfers of select agents with only a single confirmed shipping loss. However, neither UPS nor the U.S. Postal Service is willing to transport specimens, leaving only one commercial carrier, according to the CDC.
“Another commercial carrier has indicated to CDC it is in the process of establishing a program to handle select-agent packages,” the agency reported. “Discussions between the carrier and CDC are ongoing.”
USA Today reports that the company is World Courier, which doesn’t have the same capabilities.
“This is going to delay our ability to get work done,” said Battelle’s biomedical research center director Gregory Bowen. “We have studies that are on tight schedules to begin with, but without material we need to continue the studies, we can’t do anything.”