Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Anthrax scare reveals more CDC lab problems

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also stopped shipping some dangerous germs to other labs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also stopped shipping some dangerous germs to other labs. AP

NEW YORK - Citing an anthrax scare and other safety problems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday said it shut down two research labs and stopped shipping highly dangerous germs to other labs.

An incident at one of the closed Atlanta labs could have accidentally exposed workers in three labs to anthrax last month. A second, previously undisclosed problem earlier in the year involved deadly bird flu.

The CDC also released a report that detailed three other incidents in the last decade in which mistakes or other problems caused potentially dangerous germs to be sent out. No lab worker or member of the public was sickened in any of the incidents, the CDC said.

The federal agency operates some of the world's most advanced and most secure laboratories for the handling of deadly germs, and has enjoyed a reputation as a role model for that kind of work. During a news conference Friday, CDC director Tom Frieden said he was upset by the carelessness. "I'm just astonished that this could have happened here," he said.

Frieden said internal and outside panels will investigate both recent problems and review safety procedures for handling dangerous germs.

Friday's disclosures came days after the government revealed that 60-year-old vials of smallpox virus had been forgotten in a lab building at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md.

Frieden said Friday that tests show that two of the six vials still had live virus. More testing is going on, but all the samples are to be destroyed..

Smallpox was declared eradicated in the 1980s, and all known live virus is stored in Russia or at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

The CDC shipment moratorium applies to specially built labs in Atlanta and Fort Collins, Colo.

"They deal with the most sensitive infectious agents and so we expect they will adhere to very high standards," said William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.

Schaffner called the CDC's disclosures "disturbing," but praised the agency for being candid.

Frieden said "appropriate personnel action" will be taken against any employees who caused or failed to prevent the safety failures. No matter how terrifying these germs can be, "if you work with something day in and day out, [eventually] you can get a little careless," he said.

Members of Congress voiced concern about the CDC disclosures. Sixteen senators signed a letter calling for a careful review of safety policies at federal health agencies.

One biosecurity expert said it's important for CDC to identify and fix any safety problems. But he worries the public will overreact.

"I fear a backlash against this research that I consider very, very vital," said Amesh Adalja of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Mike Stobbe Associated Press
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