CDC Chief Vows to Target Lab Safety

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

July 17, 2014

Lapses with anthrax, avian flu show sloppy practices.

The head of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Congress his agency has "an insufficient culture of safety" after its labs mishandled anthrax and a deadly flu virus in recent weeks.

A series of investigations shows a years-long pattern of lapses at the CDC, and though no one was harmed in the recent incidents, CDC Director Thomas Frieden said at a hearing Wednesday that the agency must transform how it approaches safety at its secure labs.

But members of Congress from both parties were skeptical of the turnabout --- especially considering that the CDC promised changes after similar missteps were identified in government audits as far back as 2008.

"We addressed specific problems with, I believe, a sincere effort to correct problems," Frieden said. "But what we missed was a broader pattern that we are now addressing."

Frieden has put a moratorium on the transfer of all biological material after publicly acknowledging that in recent months CDC labs had mistakenly shipped an avian flu virus to Athens and shipped potentially live anthrax bacteria to three other labs.

In addition, Frieden shut down the anthrax and flu labs, pending a safety review; appointed an internal point person and working group on safety; and sought out an external review team.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., was appalled that live anthrax—which scientists thought they had rendered inert—was transported via a Ziploc bag.

Murphy, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that conducted the hearing, said he planned to travel to Atlanta soon to inspect the labs himself. He wants to see more safeguards such as electronic access doors and a second person in the room to watch over people who are working with dangerous pathogens.

"I want the employees to understand the seriousness of this," Murphy told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the hearing. "If someone had gotten sick or someone had died, there's questions of criminality here."

Murphy compared the problems at the CDC to the scandals facing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and General Motors. But dealing with weapons of mass destruction makes the CDC problems more serious, he said.

"If we had been discussing a nuclear launch facility and said: 'Yeah, someone left the keys laying around. And someone got in and someone pressed some buttons, but the rocket didn't launch.' It's the same thing," Murphy said.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., presented a compilation of all the reported problems at high-containment labs.

"Dr. Frieden has indicated that he was surprised as anybody by the scope of these problems," she said. "And the fact that you were so surprised is a problem in and of itself because what it shows is there's a fundamental problem of the culture of identifying and reporting safety problems up the chain of command."

Frieden could not say for sure what consequences would befall the scientists who improperly sent out the dangerous material.

"In terms of disciplinary hearings, what we want to do is strike the right balance," Frieden said.

"On the one hand, we recognize the need to make sweeping improvements in our culture of safety. And part of that means that staff need to feel comfortable any time saying, 'Hey, there may be a problem here' and coming forward. At the same time, if our investigation finds there is negligence, if people knowingly failed to report (problems that would) endanger themselves or others, we will take appropriate action."

In a preliminary report, the CDC found that the scientists working with the anthrax did not use a proper procedure for rendering it inactive before moving it to the less-secure labs for further study.

A former CDC employee, Sean Kaufman, who lives in Woodstock and has a small business that trains workers in high-containment facilities, said the scientists were using a procedure imported from another lab.

Punishing an employee for an unintentional misstep is counterproductive, Kaufman said, because "it builds resentment, it teaches no new behavior and it hides true behavior."

Murphy scoffed.

"It builds resentment? You gotta be kidding me," he said. "You're telling me these people with Ph.D.s do not understand that anthrax is dangerous?"

Nancy Kingsbury, of the Government Accountability Office, testified that there are no uniform government standards for high-containment laboratories—which have proliferated since the 2001 anthrax attacks targeting members of Congress and news organizations. The GAO has called for a centralized authority overseeing the labs since 2009, to no avail.

Digging deeper

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last month that about 75 of its workers had possibly been exposed to anthrax. Then it was learned that a CDC lab had mishandled a deadly flu virus. To see more on this story, go to MyAJC.com.

Copyright 2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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