US health chief admits 'pattern' of safety failures (Update)

July 16, 2014 by Kerry Sheridan

The chief of the US government's top public health agency acknowledged a pattern of safety errors Wednesday after dangerous mixups in the handling of influenza and anthrax.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged five incidents over the past decade—two of them in recent months—in which workers shipped anthrax, flu, botulism and a bacteria known as brucella to other labs without following proper de-activation and safety procedures.

"I think we missed a critical pattern," CDC chief Tom Frieden said during two hours of questioning from the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

"The pattern is an insufficient culture of safety."

No one was believed to have been hurt by the mishaps, but they exposed a major lapse of protocol within the CDC, which is viewed globally as a leading scientific and health agency.

The discoveries included the mistaken contamination of a mild flu strain with a dangerous H5N1 bird flu that was shipped to a US Department of Agriculture poultry lab. The incident happened six weeks before it was made known to CDC leadership.

Other problems included the potential exposure of around 80 workers at the CDC's Atlanta headquarters to anthrax in early June, when samples were not properly handled and deactivated before shipment.

The CDC issued a report Friday that detailed three other lab mistakes: two in 2006 involving live anthrax and botulism, and one in 2009 involving brucella, a strain of bacteria that can cause the infectious disease brucellosis.

More details emerged shortly after Frieden's testimony regarding the discovery earlier this month of six forgotten vials of smallpox at a separate US government lab at the National Institutes of Health, which had also raised alarm over the potential release of dangerous biological agents that could be used as terror weapons.

The Food and Drug Administration, which was responsible for the lab where the smallpox was found, issued a statement saying a total of 327 vials of biological samples, including dengue, influenza, rickettsia and Q fever, had been found in the same cold storage area.

"This collection was most likely assembled between 1946 and 1964, when standards for work with and storage of biological specimens were very different from those used today," the FDA said.

"Overlooking such a sample collection is clearly unacceptable."

Anthrax in food storage bags

A separate investigation by the USDA has revealed more problems at the CDC, according to a memo about the report released by lawmakers earlier this week.

The probe found there were missing containers of anthrax that had to be tracked down by inspectors. Some materials were also transported using only food storage bags, and anthrax was stored in unlocked refrigerators in a hallway where workers passed through freely.

"What in heaven's name would go through the minds of some scientists, thinking a Ziploc bag is enough to protect someone from anthrax?" asked Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that hosted the hearing.

Frieden said anyone who handled anthrax that way would have done so because he or she believed it had been inactivated, and he promised to be directly involved in the investigation and the implementation of safety changes.

"While we have scientists who are the best in the world at what they do, they have not always applied that same rigor that they do to their scientific experiments, to improving safety," said Frieden.

The CDC has shut down two labs and issued a moratorium on the shipment of dangerous agents from its facilities until a thorough review can be completed.

Frieden said he has appointed a single point person to oversee safety and was working to convene an internal review board as well as an external advisory group to offer ways to prevent such dangerous incidents in the future.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Florida, said there have been at least 14 separate reports, letters and lab investigations from various US government branches documenting safety lapses and lack of oversight at CDC high containment labs over the last decade.

"It appears that CDC has not heeded those reports," Castor said.

"It's troubling. I mean, this has gone on for years now."

Explore further: Second probe details more CDC anthrax lab problems

Related Stories

Second probe details more CDC anthrax lab problems

July 14, 2014
A second investigation found more safety problems at federal health laboratories in Atlanta, including the use of expired disinfectants and the transfer of dangerous germs in Ziploc bags.

CDC outlines five incidents in which deadly pathogens were mishandled

July 14, 2014
Dangerous germs, including anthrax, botulism and a strain of bird flu, were improperly sent among government laboratories in five incidents during the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ...

No sign of anthrax illness after CDC lab incident

June 30, 2014
Officials say there are no signs anyone got sick from anthrax after a lab safety problem at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

US govt lab mixed up potent flu strain

July 11, 2014
A US government laboratory mistakenly mixed a common flu strain with a dangerous and deadly type of bird flu and shipped it to another lab, authorities said Friday.

CDC issues tough report on anthrax scare

July 12, 2014
(HealthDay)—U.S. health officials have concluded that it's highly unlikely any lab workers were exposed to live anthrax during a safety mishap last month.

Dozens of US workers taking anti-anthrax drugs

June 20, 2014
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says at least 52 workers are taking antibiotics as a precaution because of a lab safety problem that may have accidentally exposed them to anthrax.

Recommended for you

Don't hold your nose and close your mouth when you sneeze, doctors warn

January 15, 2018
Pinching your nose while clamping your mouth shut to contain a forceful sneeze isn't a good idea, warn doctors in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

New antifungal provides hope in fight against superbugs

January 12, 2018
Microscopic yeast have been wreaking havoc in hospitals around the world—creeping into catheters, ventilator tubes, and IV lines—and causing deadly invasive infection. One culprit species, Candida auris, is resistant ...

Dengue takes low and slow approach to replication

January 11, 2018
A new study reveals how dengue virus manages to reproduce itself in an infected person without triggering the body's normal defenses. Duke researchers report that dengue pulls off this hoax by co-opting a specialized structure ...

Different strains of same bacteria trigger widely varying immune responses

January 11, 2018
Genetic differences between different strains of the same pathogenic bacterial species appear to result in widely varying immune system responses, according to new research published in PLOS Pathogens.

Human protein may aid neuron invasion by virus that causes hand, foot, and mouth disease

January 11, 2018
A human protein known as prohibitin may play a significant role in infection of the nervous system by EV71, one of several viruses that can cause hand, foot, and mouth disease. Issac Too of the National University of Singapore ...

Untangling how Epstein-Barr virus infects cells

January 11, 2018
A team led by scientists at Northwestern Medicine has discovered a new epithelial receptor for Epstein-Barr virus, according to a study published recently in Nature Microbiology.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.