For weeks, federal and state officials have scrambled to figure out how a dangerous bacteria, which is classified as a bioterrorism disease, escaped a laboratory at the Tulane National Primate Research Center.

Now, the laboratory’s troubles have deepened: tests indicate that a veterinary clinic worker might have been exposed to the bacteria, a federal official said according to USA Today.

The burkholderia pseudomallei bacteria causes a disease called Melioidosis, which can be life-threatening. People and primates can become infected if they come into contact with soil or water where the bacteria lives and grows. It is found predominantly in tropical climates like Southeast Asia and northern Australia where infection rates can be high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it is not typically in the U.S..

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Tulane was conducting vaccine research on the bacteria, according to USA Today. And that requires a biosafety level 3 laboratory facility — the second highest that exists.

But over the last few months, officials have discovered that the bacteria was released from Tulane’s lab and several monkeys who were infected had to be euthanized.

There is no risk to the general public, the CDC said. But the discovery has raised additional questions about the procedures at several labs that are responsible for highly infectious and in some cases, deadly substances.

All five of the rhesus macaque monkeys that tested positive for the bacteria were treated at Tulane’s veterinary clinic, where the health worker was also employed, according to USA Today.

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The only commonality among the animals “was their presence in the veterinary hospital during the same period of time,” Andrew Lackner, the director of the Tulane center, said in a statement according to ABC News. The veterinary clinic has since been decontaminated.

The monkeys were never part of any research involving the bacteria and were kept in a part of the facility that is not in the same building where the bacteria was held, USA Today’s investigation found:

The CDC and Tulane have said they suspect that the monkeys, which lived in the outdoor breeding colony and away from the lab, were exposed to the bacteria inside the center’s veterinary hospital. All of the animals that have tested positive for the bacteria were treated in the hospital sometime between last fall and Feb. 2, when the clinic was decontaminated.
It is not known how the bacteria got into the hospital, which is in a different building about a five-minute walk from where the lab is located.

The clinic worker’s test results are still preliminary and will need to be confirmed in subsequent retesting — the results of which will be available by early next week, according to USA Today.

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“The amount of antibodies found in the employee was just at the threshold for a verified positive result,” CDC spokesman Jason McDonald told USA Today in an e-mail. “This level is sometimes found in members of the public, even among those who have no history or knowledge of actual exposure.”

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It is just the latest troubling mystery involving labs that deal with potentially hazardous materials.

Last year, the CDC acknowledged that it improperly handled samples of agents including anthrax, botulism bacteria, and bird flu on five separate occasions in the last decade at its Atlanta laboratory.

In a separate incident, the Food and Drug Administration said that it discovered missing vials of small pox and other diseases in a storage room.

A more thorough sweep of federal labs found half a dozen cases where dangerous or deadly substances were improperly stored — including ricin and the bacteria that causes the plague.

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