CDC Closes Labs After Accidents With Ebola, H5N1, Flu, Anthrax, Smallpox, etc.
The findings are disturbing because the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention works with dangerous microbes like smallpox, Ebola and anthrax!
The incidents, and another involving the discovery of 1950s-era vials of smallpox in a lab at the National Institutes of Health, "raise serious and troubling questions" and have people asking about safety in government labs, Dr. Frieden said.
The Move Follows Incident in Which Workers Potentially Were Exposed to Live Anthrax
After accidents with anthrax and a deadly flu strain in recent weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention temporarily halted the shipment of samples from its high-security laboratories and said it will review safety procedures with external advisors.
CDC Director Tom Frieden on Friday said a lab that works regularly with flu viruses at the agency had accidentally cross-contaminated a low-pathogenic H9N2 virus sample with a strain of H5N1 flu, one of the most deadly viruses known. The sample was then shipped to a lab at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which discovered the contamination, he said.
The Latest CDC Mishap Involved Cross-Contamination of Flu Viruses
Dr. Frieden said he found the flu lab incident particularly distressing because it happened six weeks ago, yet he learned about it only this week.
He said he has ordered a moratorium on material leaving high-security BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs until safety procedures can be reviewed, "and we will assess lab by lab before we open." A high-level CDC working group also will conduct a review with an external advisory panel, he said, adding that members of that panel would be invited to join next week.
The smallpox vials unearthed at the NIH have been transferred to the CDC, which is one of the world's two depositories for the virus. Smallpox was eradicated in humans about 35 years ago, but samples of the virus have been retained at the CDC and a Russian government lab in Siberia for research purposes.
Dr. Frieden said testing showed that virus in two of the six vials of smallpox had shown evidence of growth in tissue culture, meaning the virus is live. The vials are marked with a date of Feb. 10, 1954, which was before the effort to eradicate smallpox got underway. "Whoever created these vials didn't do so out of malice," he said.
CDC scientists are analyzing the entire genetic sequence of the virus in the vials in a lab at the highest level of security. The vials and samples will then be destroyed, he said. "That's what should have been done a couple of decades ago," Dr. Frieden said.
The findings are disturbing not only because the CDC works with dangerous microbes like smallpox, Ebola and anthrax, but also because it sets standards for high security labs at universities and elsewhere that also work with these pathogens, known as "select agents."
Such accidents could jeopardize important research on bioterror and infectious diseases, said Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases doctor and biosecurity expert at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"People may get alarmed about what level of safety is practiced in these labs and that in itself is dangerous," he said. "This type of research is vital to protect people."
After potentially serious back-to-back laboratory accidents, federal health officials announced Friday that they had temporarily closed the flu and anthrax laboratories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and halted shipments of all infectious agents from the agency’s highest-security labs.
The accidents, and the C.D.C.’s emphatic response to them, could have important consequences for the many laboratories that store high-risk agents and the few that, even more controversially, specialize in making them more dangerous for research purposes.
If the C.D.C. — which the agency’s director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, called “the reference laboratory to the world” — had multiple accidents that could, in theory, have killed both staff members and people outside, there will undoubtedly be calls for stricter controls on other university, military and private laboratories.
In addition to those mistakes, Dr. Frieden also announced Friday that two of six vials of smallpox recently found stored in a National Institutes of Health laboratory since 1954 contained live virus capable of infecting people.
“These events revealed totally unacceptable behavior,” Dr. Frieden said. “They should never have happened. I’m upset, I’m angry, I’ve lost sleep over this, and I’m working on it until the issue is resolved.”
The anthrax and flu labs will remain closed until new procedures are imposed, Dr. Frieden said. For the flu lab, that will be finished in time for vaccine preparation for next winter’s flu season, he said.
CAMERA FINDER III
Scientists doing the most controversial work — efforts to make pathogens more lethal or more transmissible — say the research helps predict mutations that might arise in nature so that vaccines can be created. But other scientists feel that creating superstrains is unacceptably dangerous because lab accidents are more common than is often acknowledged, as Dr. Frieden’s announcement indicated.
The revelations at the C.D.C. renewed calls for a moratorium by opponents of such “gain of function” research.
“This has been a nonstop series of bombshells, and this news about contamination with H5N1 is just incredible,” said Peter Hale, founder of the Foundation for Vaccine Research, which lobbies for more funding for vaccines but opposes “gain of function” research. “You can have all the safety procedures in the world, but you can’t provide for human error.”
At the C.D.C. itself, Dr. Frieden said, staff members who knowingly failed to follow procedures or who failed to report dangerous incidents will be disciplined. A committee of experts will be convened to revise procedures.
Though the contamination was discovered on May 23, Dr. Frieden said that he was dismayed to discover that senior C.D.C. officials were not informed until July 7, and that he was told only 48 hours ago.
In theory, the flu-related accident could have been much worse than the anthrax one.
The anthrax episode took place on June 5 in the agency’s bioterrorism rapid response lab as part of testing a new mass spectrometry method.
The error was discovered by accident. The door to an autoclave that would have sterilized samples taken for safety tests was stuck, so they were left in an incubator for days longer than normal. Only then did a lab technician notice that bacteria believed to be dead were growing.
Later tests done at the C.D.C. and at a Michigan State Health Department lab as part of the investigation confirmed that the chemical method would have killed any live, growing anthrax in the samples that were sent out, but might not have killed all spores, which are surrounded by a hard shell and can also be lethal.
Although anthrax terrifies laymen, “when you work with it day in and day out, you can get a little careless,” Dr. Frieden said. “The culture of safety needs to improve at some C.D.C. laboratories.”
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