CDC Chief Considers Independent Overseer for Pathogens

Safety lapses at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may spur the agency’s director Tom Frieden to consider the creation of an independent group to regulate research on dangerous pathogens.

Researchers who work with toxic substances can become inured to the risks, which can lead to mishaps such those involving anthrax and small pox at government labs in the past month, Frieden said yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington. The CDC oversees more than 300 entities that deal with such research, he said.

U.S. House lawmakers last week questioned how Frieden could have been surprised by the safety breakdowns after years of warnings from investigators. Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, pointed to six inspections of a CDC facility that mishandled anthrax finding “dozens of observations of concern,” including scientists using torn gloves and exhaust hoods blowing fumes the wrong way.

“What I missed, and what the staff of CDC missed, is that these isolated incidents did reflect a pattern,” Frieden said. “We have to take seriously above all ‘Do no harm.’ Human error may be inevitable but harm shouldn’t be.”

Lapses included abandoned vials of small pox from the 1950s and about 75 scientists who may have been exposed to live anthrax after the deadly bacteria were mishandled. The CDC also discovered it had inadvertently shipped a deadly strain of flu to a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory in March.

Frieden ‘Stunned’

Frieden said the bird flu breach “stunned” him most because that lab is the best anywhere. He said each incident was handled appropriately once the mishaps were revealed.

He told the story of CDC staff members entering Python Cave in Uganda, a popular tourist attraction where bats and pythons live together, to investigate Marburg disease, which like Ebola causes outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever. “Weren’t you scared?” Frieden said he asked the unfazed staff members.

“Sometimes that experiences makes people too used to risk,” he said.

Frieden said he is implementing “sweeping measures” to improve lab safety. He 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.

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