CDC Takes Steps to Improve Lab Safety After Anthrax, Flu Scares

FierceBiotech Research

July 28, 2014

In response to back-to-back incidents involving government laboratories, a top official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has resigned, and the agency has assembled a safety board to address concerns that have arisen after workers were potentially exposed to anthrax and H5N1 flu.

The agency took swift action and on July 11 closed down its anthrax and flu labs in Atlanta and halted all shipments of infectious agents from its high-security labs. Now, it's taking further steps to tackle safety issues related to infectious disease research by convening a laboratory safety workgroup made up of external experts. The group will examine lab protocol with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, assess whether current protocols are being followed and if they are sufficient, and make recommendations for new safety procedures.

The CDC has also lifted its suspension on a specific type of material transfer for its tuberculosis lab, essentially giving the lab the green light to resume its activities. But the freeze remains in place for other high-containment labs.

Michael Farrell, who had led the CDC's Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory since 2009, stepped down, according to an agency spokesman.

"Those lapses should never have happened. The CDC laboratories are some of the best scientifically in the world, and now we're taking rapid and decisive action to make sure that they're also some of the safest laboratories in the world," CDC Director Tom Frieden said at July 22 event at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Frieden told a congressional oversight committee that his agency is looking into ways to address an "insufficient culture of safety" that came to light when news broke that more than 80 workers may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria in June after samples were sent to labs not equipped to handle them. A second blow to the agency came after a lab accidentally contaminated a benign flu sample with a dangerous H5N1 bird flu strain that has killed 386 people since 2003.

The agency says that no single set of procedures can be used for every lab since different labs deal with different pathogens, so safeguards will be tailored to each individual lab.

A 2013 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the number of "high-containment" labs that work with risky pathogens has increased to about 1,500 from a little more than 400 in 2004.

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