The hunt for a deadly superbug that sickened 22 patients at a Dutch hospital began just before noon on a spring day in 2012.

Inside a lab in the tiny hamlet of Zoeterwoude, a technician carefully peeled back the tip of a state-of-the art medical scope. Watching him intently was a small group of hospital officials and executives from Olympus Corp., maker of the device. The technician found trouble right away: a brown, grimy film inside parts of the flexible scope. A rubber ring designed to keep bacteria out was cracked and worn. The same bacteria that had sickened the patients were found on the scope.

An investigator hired by Olympus and the hospital concluded that the scope’s design could allow blood and tissue to become trapped, spreading bacteria. In his report, he called on Olympus to conduct a worldwide investigation and recall all its scopes if similar problems turned up.

Over the next three years, 21 people died and at least two dozen more became ill from infections related to scopes in Pittsburgh, Seattle and Los Angeles. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has identified 10 outbreaks, seven of which involve Olympus scopes.

Even as patients died, Olympus continued to sell the device and failed to warn U.S. hospitals, according to interviews with dozens of hospital officials, doctors, regulators and former Olympus employees. Regulators have warned all U.S. hospitals that an increasing number of infections across the country might be related to the scopes’ design.

Olympus has declined to answer specific questions about the scope’s role in patient infections and its handling of the outbreaks.

Los Angeles Times