U.S. lawmakers questioned how the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could have been surprised by sloppy handling of pathogens in his agency’s labs, after years of warnings from investigators.
A June incident in which more than 80 CDC workers were potentially exposed to deadly anthrax after live bacteria were transferred to a low-security lab came as a “wake-up call” for the agency, Tom Frieden, its director, has said. A separate audit found anthrax stored in unlocked refrigerators in unrestricted hallways and bacteria carried in Ziploc bags.
At a hearing today, Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, said six inspections of a CDC facility that mishandled the anthrax 2013 and 2014 found “dozens of observations of concern,” including scientists using torn gloves and exhaust hoods blowing fumes the wrong way.
“A ’wake-up call?’ That is a gross and dangerous understatement,” said Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
The CDC’s handling of the anthrax incident, as well as an error in March when a deadly strain of flu was inadvertently shipped to a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory, raise broad question about the government’s handling of dangerous microorganisms, lawmakers said.
Frieden told Congress he is supervising “sweeping measures” to improve safety at the agency’s labs.
Among other measures, Frieden has prohibited the transfer of pathogens from the CDC’s highest-security labs and temporarily closed the agency’s Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology laboratory. The director of the lab was reassigned.
“The record shows that CDC had ample warnings and should have been focused on problems in their high-containment labs long before the June anthrax release,” DeGette said at the hearing. “I think you should have known about them. The fact that you did not indicates that key officials did not instill a culture of identifying and reporting safety problems up the chain of command.”
Frieden agreed, telling the lawmakers the recent incidents were “completely unacceptable.” He said they have caused agency officials to “recognize a pattern at CDC where we need to greatly improve the culture of safety.”
CDC workers were potentially exposed to live anthrax between June 5 and June 13, when a scientist prepared samples of the bacteria for an experiment in a high-security lab and didn’t ensure they were sterile before transferring them to a lower-level lab at the CDC’s Atlanta campus, according to a report the agency released.
Sixty-two workers were provided or prescribed antibiotics after the mistake was discovered, a CDC spokesman, Tom Skinner, said in an e-mail. The agency didn’t inform Congress or the public of the incident until June 19.
It’s the first time an accident at the CDC has resulted in workers being treated for potential exposure to a pathogen, said Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University molecular biology researcher, in a telephone interview yesterday.
While anthrax isn’t contagious, a CDC mishap involving a microorganism that is “not merely infectious but also transmissible” could be disastrous, Ebright said.
“In the event of a similar incident with one of those biological weapons agent pathogens, now not only are workers at risk but the community is at risk as well,” Ebright said. “And by community, I’m not talking about a neighborhood in Atlanta -- I’m talking about a state, a country, a planet.”
The “overriding factor” leading to the anthrax release was the lack of a written plan “to ensure that the research design was appropriate and met all laboratory safety requirements,” Frieden said in prepared testimony for the committee.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects CDC laboratories handling dangerous organisms under an agreement between the agencies, investigated the anthrax release beginning on June 23. The auditors found that scientists had improperly stored and handled anthrax, untrained workers used expired disinfectant to clean the labs after the release, and a CDC treatment clinic was “overwhelmed.”
“Staff left the clinic without knowing the extent of their risk of exposure,” the USDA investigation found, according to the House report.
Ebright said Congress should create an independent agency to regulate research on dangerous pathogens. The CDC has that responsibility now, a role that poses a conflict of interest since the agency also conducts much of the research, he said.
The number of laboratories in the U.S. handling dangerous microorganisms and the number of people authorized to work with the agents -- a count that has mushroomed since 2001, according to Ebright -- should be scaled back, he said. About 11,000 people are approved to work with what the government calls “select agents,” according to the House report, and Ebright said there are more than 1,000 “bioweapons agents labs” in the country.