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More anthrax safety problems uncovered in second probe of CDC labs


By Steven Ross Johnson
Posted: July 15, 2014 - 1:45 pm ET
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A second investigation identified more problems with safety procedures at federal bioresearch laboratories involving the handling of dangerous pathogens such as anthrax. The new findings come ahead of a Wednesday congressional hearing on the failures.

On Monday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations released a memo describing an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture into a recent incident involving the mishandling of anthrax last month at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory in Atlanta.

The USDA discovered missing anthrax containers that needed to be tracked down by inspectors, dangerous biomaterials transferred in zip-close bags, and anthrax stored in unlocked refrigerators in areas easily accessible to CDC staffers, according to the subcommittee's memo.

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More than 80 CDC employees were exposed to live anthrax when it was unknowingly transported from one of its laboratory to another, according to the agency's own findings. None of the workers have so far reported illness due to exposure. The incident was the latest in a series of missteps regarding the storage, use, transfer and disposal of deadly germs, which led the agency to temporarily shut down two of its labs and halt the transfer of biological materials in or out of other labs.

The CDC identified a total of five incidents of protocol breaches over the past decade, one of which involved an unintentional contamination of a nonpathogenic form of bird-flu virus that was crossed with a highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 influenza and subsequently shipped to another CDC lab. Though the incident occurred six weeks ago, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden told reporters on Friday that the agency learned of it last week.

Frieden is scheduled to testify before the House subcommittee on Wednesday to discuss the safety issues at the CDC regarding the handling of dangerous agents.

Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHsjohnson


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