Anthrax, Bird Flu Safety Breaches Shut Down CDC Labs

The accidental release of a lethal strain of avian flu, following an anthrax scare last month, has spurred the Centers for Disease Control to ban movement of infectious material from its labs, and to close two of them.

The incidents were among five that have occurred over the past decade, the U.S. agency said in a report yesterday. While no one has become ill from either mishap, both the flu lab and the one containing the anthrax has been shut, the CDC said.

The flu strain was inadvertently released in March, and top agency officials only learned of it two days ago, when they took action to close the laboratory, according to the report. In June, more than 80 people were potentially exposed to anthrax at a CDC laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia. That facility remains closed since the incident.

“These events should never have happened,” said Tom Frieden, the CDC director, in a conference call.

The dangerous H5N1 bird flu strain was found to have contaminated a sample of a less serious form of influenza, known as H9N2, that was shipped to a U.S. Agriculture Department facility in Athens, Georgia.

The H5N1 virus is a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu and more than 600 human cases have been reported since 2003. It can cause severe respiratory illnesses and death. While the virus doesn’t transmit easily between humans, prolonged contact has resulted in infection in some cases, the CDC said.

Appropriate disciplinary actions will be taken for personnel who did not follow appropriate safety and reporting procedures, Frieden said.

2006, 2009

The other incidents in the report occurred in 2006, when the same lab shipped vials containing live anthrax and botulism in DNA preparations, and in 2009, when another CDC lab found that a strain of Brucella bacteria had been misidentified.

Beyond the suspension of shipping biological samples from high-biosafety labs and the shuttering of the two labs involved, the CDC will appoint an external group to review policies and also establish a single director for lab safety, according to the report.

This report comes a few days after the CDC announced that unsecured vials of smallpox had been found in a fridge at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Some of those vials contained the live virus, Frieden said, but no infections have been reported.

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