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Outrage of the Month: Unacceptable Safety Lapses at the CDC

Health Letter, August 2014

Michael Carome, M.D.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the mailing of anonymous anthrax-contaminated letters to lawmakers and media personalities soon thereafter, the U.S. government has stoked fear by repeatedly warning the public about the threat posed by bioterrorism. In response to this threat, the federal government has spent tens of billions of dollars preparing for a possible bioterrorist attack,[1] including developing countermeasures and stockpiling large quantities of antibiotics, antiviral drugs and vaccines. But recent disclosures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that the more immediate threat of a deadly disease outbreak appears to be lurking not from an outside terrorist group, but within the federal government’s own laboratories.

This summer, the CDC revealed a series of deeply troubling safety lapses in the handling of deadly bacteria and viruses by staff at the agency’s labs in Atlanta.[2],[3] The first revelation came June 19, when the CDC disclosed that as many as 75 scientists at the agency may have been exposed unknowingly to anthrax bacteria when samples containing live anthrax spores were transferred from one CDC lab to other agency labs not equipped to handle such specimens safely.[4] Less than a month later, the CDC revealed that its workers had somehow mistakenly shipped a dangerous strain of the bird flu virus to a research lab run by the Department of Agriculture.[5]

These revelations are astonishing when one considers the following: The CDC, one of the premier agencies within the U.S. Public Health Service, employs many of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases. These experts understand better than anyone the threat posed by dangerous infectious organisms, such as anthrax, bird flu, Ebola and smallpox. Because of its expertise, the CDC is routinely called upon to investigate and help contain outbreaks of deadly infections around the globe. Ironically, the agency also is responsible for ensuring that other U.S. laboratories that handle dangerous infectious pathogens adhere to strict federal safety standards.

The CDC’s internal investigation of these and other safety lapses has revealed, according to Director Thomas Frieden, that they were not isolated mistakes but rather part of a “broader pattern” of unsafe practices at the agency’s labs.[6] For example, with respect to the anthrax incident, lab staff used unapproved and inadequate techniques to kill samples of anthrax spores as part of an experiment. The staff then transferred these samples from one lab to another without first confirming that the anthrax spores had been killed, thus placing staff in the receiving lab at risk of contracting anthrax.[7]

Frieden acknowledged that his agency’s safety procedures must be improved. However, until the CDC fully implements new safety procedures to protect its staff and the broader public from the many deadly infectious pathogens stored and studied at the agency’s labs, the director should impose a moratorium on all work involving those pathogens.

References

[1] Moodie M. Book review: Bracing for Armegeddon? The Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America. November 27, 2013. Issues in Science and Technology. http://issues.org/25-3/br_moodie/. Accessed July 17, 2014.

[2] Gever J. CDC admits lapses in lab safety, promises reforms. MedPage Today. July 11, 2014. http://www.medpagetoday.com/InfectiousDisease/GeneralInfectiousDisease/46740. Accessed July 17, 2014.

[3] Fausset R, McNeil DG. After lapses, C.D.C. admits a lax culture at labs. The New York Times. July 13, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/14/us/after-lapses-cdc-admits-a-lax-culture-at-labs.html. Accessed July 17, 2014.

[4] Tavernise S, McNeil DG. C.D.C. details anthrax scare for scientists at facilities. The New York Times. June 19, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/20/health/up-to-75-cdc-scientists-may-have-been-exposed-to-anthrax.html. Accessed July 17, 2014.

[5] Fausset R, McNeil DG. After lapses, C.D.C. admits a lax culture at labs. The New York Times. July 13, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/14/us/after-lapses-cdc-admits-a-lax-culture-at-labs.html. Accessed July 17, 2014.

[6] Grady D. C.D.C. director admits to pattern of unsafe practices. The New York Times. July 16, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/17/us/cdc-director-admits-to-pattern-of-unsafe-practices.html. Accessed July 17, 2014.

[7] Frieden TR. Testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations: review of CDC anthrax lab incident. July 16, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/washington/testimony/2014/t20140716.htm. Accessed July 20, 2014.