Last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials reported that the same federal scientist who found vials of smallpox in a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cold storage room at the National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, Md., also found a collection of 327 vials, which could contain pathogens like dengue, influenza and rickettsia.
The new revelation adds to growing concerns about the government’s ability to track and secure dangerous pathogens under its supervision.
“The fact that these materials were not discovered until now is unacceptable,” said Karen Midthun, FDA’s director for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “However, upon finding these materials our staff did the right thing — they immediately notified the appropriate authorities who secured the materials and determined there was no exposure.”
Yahoo News reports that FDA scientists have not confirmed whether the vials actually contained the pathogens listed on their labels, and whether the pathogens were active. The agency is now conducting a nationwide search of all its cold storage units for any other missing samples. The vials have posed no threat of exposure and several unlabeled vials have been sent to the CDC for testing; just as the CDC is under several investigations for its mishandling of dangerous pathogens.
Last month, roughly 80 employees at the CDC in Atlanta were feared to have been exposed to anthrax after live anthrax viruses, thought to be dead, were moved from high-security to low-security labs. USA Today reports that a few weeks later, the agency disclosed that while investigating the anthrax scare, it learned that a group of CDC researchers had cross-contaminated a relatively harmless strain of bird flu with the dangerous H5N1 strain, then shipped the specimens to a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab, which then discovered the error when birds in their lab unexpectedly became very ill and died. CDC staff delayed reporting the error to supervisors for weeks.
“I was, just frankly, stunned and appalled,” CDC head, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, said in a recent interview.
Frieden has appointed Dr. Michael Bell, a 19-year CDC veteran, to oversee laboratory safety at the agency. In an interview with the New York Times, Bell said he was most concerned about the “potential for hubris” among researchers who have become accustomed to the daily grind of working with deadly microbes that they cease to follow safety protocols.
“It is ironic that the institution that sets U.S. standards for safety and security of work with human pathogens fails to meet its own standards,” said Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University. “It is clear that the CDC cannot be relied upon to police its own select-agent labs.”
Later this month, the CDC will invite outside experts to form an external advisory group on lab safety, but some experts, including Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California who teaches a course in investigating accidents, agree that the CDC should rely on independent institutions, likes the National Academy of Sciences, to address safety problems. Others suggest an agency with subpoena powers comparable to the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airline crashes and can ground entire fleets it deems unsafe. Frieden acknowledged that the idea of an independent investigative agency was “certainly worth exploring.”
For now, Frieden has closed the CDC’s flu and bioterror labs and has banned all shipments from the agency’s highest-security labs while safety protocols are being reviewed — a move that could halt work at many public-health labs that rely on such shipments, the Times notes.
Source: Homeland Security News Wire