U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden testified in front of Congress today after a series of dangerous safety lapses at government laboratories that handle deadly pathogens such as Anthrax and Smallpox were exposed.
The revelations come after the CDC’s Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology lab exposed more than 80 unprotected lab workers to pathogenic anthrax in June.
The event has sparked major concerns over the lack of independent oversight of potentially dangerous biological research nationwide, as the number of labs dealing with these deadly pathogens has surged in recent years.
Members of a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee, who grilled the CDC director in a hearing on the ‘Review of CDC Anthrax Lab Incident’ today, cited new information on breaches previously unreported by CDC. The breeches included:
- Dozens of safety and security problems at CDC labs that handle dangerous pathogens in the 18 months, including missing signatures on required bio safety plans, improperly documenting entries and exits at CDC labs, and unauthorized access to CDC labs that posed a risk to bio security and exposed the labs to the theft of potentially lethal microbes.
- Contaminating samples of low-pathogenic bird flu virus with a highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 bird flu and then improperly shipping it to a Department of Agriculture lab.
- Improperly storing long forgotten vials of smallpox that by some accounts may have been improperly labeled and stored in an F.D.A. laboratory since 1954.
- Shipping deadly pathogens to other labs in Ziploc bags, which do not meet CDC safety requirements for carrying these materials.
Even more disturbing was the revelation that the director of the CDC, Dr. Thomas Frieden, had no clue about the numerous security breaches, learning about many of them right before the hearing. Frieden, called the bird flu incident “the most distressing,” in part because it occurred six weeks ago but was not reported to senior agency leadership until this week.
“I learned about it less than 48 hours ago,” he told reporters in a teleconference. “We need to look at our culture of safety throughout all of our laboratories,” Frieden said. “I’m upset, I’m angry. I’ve lost sleep over it and I’m doing everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
This week, the CDC temporally halted shipments of all infectious agents from the agency’s highest-security labs.