Healthcare Business News
CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden

Anthrax, bird-flu scares shut two CDC labs

By Steven Ross Johnson
Posted: July 11, 2014 - 4:00 pm ET

Operations at two government research laboratories in Atlanta have been shut down and the transfer of biological materials in or out of other laboratories has been halted in response to a slew of recent missteps in the handling of potentially deadly pathogens.

Five incidents of protocol breaches have occurred where dangerous biological materials such as anthrax, botulism and deadly strains of bird-flu virus were improperly sent to other laboratories over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday. CDC labs have been at the center of controversy recently regarding lapses in safety protocol, including an incident last month that resulted in more than 80 employees being exposed to live anthrax that was unknowingly sent to another CDC laboratory, according to an incident report (PDF) the agency released Friday. So far, none of the workers have reported illness due to exposure, according to the agency.

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A separate incident that CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden described as “most distressing” involved the unintentional cross-contamination of a nonpathogenic form of avian flu virus with highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of influenza at one CDC lab that was then mistakenly shipped to another CDC laboratory. The incident occurred six weeks ago, but was reported this week.

“These events should never have happened,” Frieden said in a call with reporters. “I'm disappointed, and frankly, I'm angry about it.”

News of the incidents comes just days after the most recent occurrence on July 1 in which vials of smallpox from the 1950s were found in an unused storage room at a Food and Drug Administration laboratory on the Maryland campus of the National Institutes of Health.

The CDC report found scientists failed to follow proper safety protocols and there was a lack of standard procedure documenting biological material being properly inactivated as well as a lack of general oversight with regard to work performed in the labs that were closed. Frieden said the moratorium would remain in place while a review by an independent advisory committee is conducted.

Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHsjohnson

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