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Handling of deadly pathogens to get wider look by House committee


By Steven Ross Johnson
Posted: July 28, 2014 - 6:30 pm ET
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Members of a congressional committee said Monday that they planned to expand their investigation into recent incidents involving safety mishaps at government biosecurity laboratories.

Republican lawmakers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to the heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Disease Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration (PDF) and the National Institutes of Health (PDF), requesting additional information surrounding the mishandling of a number of dangerous pathogens.

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“Does the CDC leadership accept responsibility for the lax safety culture which exists within CDC,” was the first of 10 questions included in a letter (PDF) lawmakers sent to CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden Monday.

Committee members have given Frieden until August 15 to respond to the questions and provide necessary documentation.

Frieden testified July 16 before the committee to answer questions about how such deadly biological agents as anthrax and strains of avian influenza virus were mistakenly stored and shipped over the past year.

As many as 80 CDC employees were potentially exposed to live anthrax that was unknowingly sent from one agency to another sometime between June 6 and June 13. The incident, along with a number of other similar events that have occurred over the past decade, prompted the agency to temporarily shut down operations at two of its research labs and halt the transfer of all biological agents in or out of facilities.

A subsequent investigation conducted by the FDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found a series of safety concerns, including missing containers, improper storage of such materials in unlocked refrigerators and the transfer of live anthrax in zip-closed plastic bags.

“The CDC is supposed to be the gold standard of the U.S. public health system and it has been tarnished,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) at the time of the hearing. “We rely on CDC to protect us and uphold the highest standards of safety, but the recent anthrax event and newly disclosed incidents have raised very serious questions about CDC's ability to safeguard properly selected agents in its own labs.”

Last week, the CDC lab resumed the transfer of inactive forms of pathogens from one of its labs. In the same week Michael Farrell resigned as head of the Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory, the facility where the anthrax incident took place.

Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHsjohnson


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