By Aaron C. Davis
The number of pregnant women in the District who may have been infected with the Zika virus last year — but who were told they were not because of botched tests at a city lab — has reached nine, D.C. officials said Thursday.
That’s a jump from the two women who D.C. officials initially said had been incorrectly given a clean bill of health. And the number appears likely to rise further.
Jenifer Smith, director of the District’s Department of Forensic Sciences, said in an interview with The Washington Post that the nine were found among more than 200 samples retested so far by a federal lab. Results from the remaining 100 women who may have been given faulty readings are expected back in the coming days.
Smith said the city does not know whether any of the nine women have given birth. She said city health officials are working to quickly notify the women’s doctors so that they can be informed.
“We haven’t hidden from our problems . . . and we won’t,” Smith said of releasing the latest batch of bad news for the department. The District’s forensic services division is still recovering from a 10-month suspension of its DNA testing following questions raised about the integrity of its work.
Regarding the Zika debacle, Smith said that “no one involved” in the inaccurate testing still works for the city, but she declined to say how many lab workers that entailed. Smith also declined to say whether those employees had resigned under pressure.
District officials announced on Feb. 9 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was redoing more than 400 tests for the Zika virus that had been performed by the city’s lab between July 14 and Dec. 14. Among those tested were samples from about 300 pregnant women who may have mistakenly been told that they didn’t have the mosquito-borne viral infection.
The District’s Public Health Lab was one of 45 facilities across the country approved to run a test for Zika to find antibodies in the blood of people previously exposed to the virus.
The District appeared to be the only jurisdiction in the country to have botched the test, according to the CDC. Prior to July 14, Zika tests from residents of the District were performed by the CDC.
Anthony Tran, who took over as director of the lab late last year, said the discovery of a “calculation error” forced lab officials to suspend the testing and question the reliability of its Zika test results.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said the botched testing would be a “major topic” of the council’s annual oversight hearing into lab performance, which is scheduled for Tuesday.
Allen said he was deeply concerned “not just for what it means for the integrity and accuracy of the testing taking place at DFS, but also for the women and families that have had their confidence in testing for Zika and their child’s health thrown into confusion and questions.”
Natalia Barolin, a clinical nurse coordinator at Mary’s Center, which provides care for many low-income immigrants in the District, said officials from the city lab had conducted two conference calls with providers in recent days to brief them on the latest findings.
She said many doctors on the calls raised concerns about the timing of the tests and about whether they should have confidence in results from tests submitted more recently.
“Providers have a lot of questions, but the city is being very proactive in reaching out to them,” she said.
Of the nine samples that have been returned as positive, eight are in a class considered likely to be Zika infections, but that could be inconclusive for women who had spent significant periods in Brazil or other countries where viruses exist with similar profiles.
Federal health officials have been able to complete a follow-up test on one of the nine samples and positively identified the woman as having Zika, Smith said.
Researchers have concluded that a Zika infection during pregnancy is linked to a distinct pattern of birth defects called congenital Zika syndrome. They include severe microcephaly, characterized by abnormally small head size and often underdeveloped brain, vision problems, and joints with limited range of motion.
According to a study published in December, about 6 percent of Zika-infected pregnant women in the United States had a baby or fetus with at least one birth defect related to the viral infection.
Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.