Tulane Primate Lab Employee Found Positive for Dangerous Bacteria in Initial Tests

PHOTO: The infection from burkholderia pseudomallei remains a mystery but poses no threat to the public, government and university officials say.PlayGetty Images
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A Tulane lab employee is the first human to test positive for a deadly bacteria that mysteriously escaped a Tulane primate research laboratory, a Tulane University spokeswoman said.

At least eight monkeys at the Tulane National Primate Center in New Orleans initially tested positive for exposure to burkholderia pseudomallei, a potentially deadly form of bacteria more commonly found in Southeast Asia and Northern Australia.

A federal investigator also tested positive for being exposed to the bacteria, but in that case it wasn't clear if he was exposed at the center or during a visit to an infected region, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But blood tests from an animal clinic employee at the center showed current or prior exposure to the dangerous bacteria, Tulane officials announced Wednesday. However, the antibodies found in the blood that indicate the positive reading were still very low and the employee showed no symptoms, Tulane officials said, adding that the readings were so low they were within the levels sometimes found among members of the public with no exposure.

As a result, the CDC is scheduled to conduct additional tests to confirm the initial result.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said burkholderia pseudomallei is an usual bacteria because it can remain dormant for a long time and it can infect different organs in the body.

"It causes all sorts of different infections depending upon the part of the body that it sets up shop in," including tuberculosis, said Schaffner. An infected person can be without symptoms for a long time and then the infection can "suddenly come to the fore and create an illness."

In the case the Tulane employee, the person might have already fought off the infection or the bacteria could be multiplying and eventually cause a full-blown infection with symptoms, Schaffner said. Continued blood tests should reveal if the infection is expected to get worse and doctors can then try a cocktail of antibiotics to treat the infection, he said.

CDC officials have said there is no risk to the public from the outbreak. It's unclear how the bacteria from the high-tech security lab at the research center initially infected the primates.

ABC News' Liz Neporent contributed to this report.