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CDC under scrutiny for safety lapses

July 16, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
Safety and security problems put the head of the Centers for Disease Control under the microscope at a House hearing. Lawmakers questioned Dr. Thomas Frieden over concerns such as workers being exposed to live strains of anthrax and avian flu being shipped to outside labs, among dozens of other safety violations. Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Alex Wayne of Bloomberg News.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a series of alarming safety lapses at the federal Centers for Disease Control. No one’s been hurt, but they have raised serious questions. And, today, the head of the CDC traveled to Capitol Hill to address them.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

REP. TIM MURPHY, R, Penn.: What we have here is a pattern of reoccurring issues of complacency and a lax culture of safety. This is not sound science, and this will not be tolerated.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Revelations of safety and security problems put Dr. Thomas Frieden under the microscope at a House hearing. The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was called to account after more than 80 CDC lab workers were exposed to live strains of anthrax last month in Atlanta.

The agency has also acknowledged that it mistakenly shipped the avian flu virus to outside labs. Separately, several 60-year-old vials of smallpox, some with still viable strains, were found at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

No one was sickened in the incidents, but Frieden conceded:

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The fact that it appears that no one was harmed and that there were no releases does not excuse what happened. What happened was completely unacceptable. It should never have happened.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lawmakers pointed to a pattern of disturbing incidents, and to CDC’s failure to report them before now. The House panel found that federal investigators have documented dozens of other safety violations at CDC facilities in Atlanta, among them, storing anthrax in unlocked refrigerators, allowing unauthorized access to labs, failing to document that staff were properly trained, and even transferring germ materials in Ziploc plastic bags.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: I think that 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. And that’s why we’re taking a number of steps to strengthen the culture of safety at CDC.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Frieden’s admission failed to satisfy committee members from either party, including Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy.

REP. TIM MURPHY: And I have to think, what in heaven’s name would go through the minds of some scientist thinking a Ziploc bag is enough to protect someone from anthrax?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: Once the laboratory had said, here is killed anthrax, it was handled by the staff in those lower-containment laboratories as if it were not infectious.

REP. TIM MURPHY: But, Dr. Frieden, this is like saying, I didn’t know the gun was loaded, but somebody got shot. But you should always assume it is. For someone to say, well, I didn’t think the anthrax was live isn’t acceptable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette suggested there’s a more overarching problem, lack of oversight.

REP. DIANA DEGETTE, D, Colo.: Dr. Frieden has indicated that he was as surprised as anybody by the scope of the problems.

And the fact, Dr. Frieden, you were so surprised is a problem in and of itself, because what it shows is that there is a fundamental problem with the culture of identifying and reporting safety problems up the chain of the command.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The CDC has now closed two labs tied to the anthrax episode until safety protocols are reviewed. Frieden said he’s naming an outside advisory group to revamp those rules.

Alex Wayne of Bloomberg news was at the hearings today and joins us now.

So let’s talk a little bit about some of these incidents that the members of Congress were so heated about, first the anthrax one that we learned about in full just last week.

ALEX WAYNE, Bloomberg News: Right.

So, in early June, some scientists at a very high-level lab at the CDC called the Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Lab were preparing an experiment using anthrax. They thought they had sterilized the anthrax before sending it to a lower-security lab, but it turned out they hadn’t.

And they only discovered this about eight or nine days after they had sent the anthrax to this laboratory. So that raised the prospect that some workers were exposed to it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Frieden said that he was almost more concerned about the incident with the avian flu. Why?

ALEX WAYNE: I think there are two problems there.

One, they didn’t find out until months after the incident happened. And, two, this strain of avian flu is very dangerous. I believe it was — it’s lethal in about 50 percent of the people who contract it, as opposed to anthrax, which is also dangerous if you’re infected, but it can be treated with antibiotics, and you also can’t transmit it to anybody else.

I think that’s really one of the overriding concerns here with this anthrax incident. It’s not so much that anthrax got loose in the CDC labs. It’s, what else might get loose that’s even more dangerous?  What could a CDC worker become infected with, then leave, go home, transmit to his family, transmit to his neighbors?  All of a sudden, you have a public health emergency, not just a problem within the walls of the CDC.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So you witnessed something today that’s becoming increasingly rare in Washington, which is bipartisan agreement, at least on a level of frustration toward the CDC.

ALEX WAYNE: Yes.

I think what really concerned lawmakers today was that Thomas Frieden, the director of the CDC, seemed to have been surprised by these incidents. He said it was a wakeup call for his agency, even though there have been numerous investigative reports over the last — really over the last three or four years pointing out safety violations and poor procedures in CDC labs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what does the CDC say that it will do and how will it be different than the times before?

ALEX WAYNE: Yes.

Well, this time, they have — they have taken some concrete steps to sort of control this research, at least in the short-term. They have closed this bioterror lab that mishandled the anthrax. And it’s going to be closed indefinitely until they put in what they say will be better procedures to handle this material.

They have also, for now, imposed a moratorium on transferring these very dangerous pathogens between labs within CDC or shipping them to labs around the country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, this might be a rudimentary question, but what does the CDC say is the need to have multiple locations around the country dealing with such incredibly powerful live agents?

ALEX WAYNE: Well, there are really a couple of different agencies within the government that study these things, not just the CDC, but the Department of Agriculture and the Defense Department.

They don’t all have the facilities concentrated in Atlanta. The USDA has facilities elsewhere in the country, as does the Defense Department. Also, universities often operate fairly high-security labs, not to the level of the CDC’s, but certainly secure, and they like to have their own material on hand to perform their research.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so now that they have closed off these specific labs, are there different protocols that the CDC says it can put into place to prevent this from ever happening again?

ALEX WAYNE: Really, what’s an issue here is ensuring that scientists follow the protocols that were already in place.

The reports that the — that Congress has made public this week reveal that the CDC workers were simply ignoring procedures that make a lot of common sense. For example, they were transferring anthrax between labs in Ziploc bags. They were storing anthrax in unlocked refrigerators and unrestricted hallways.

If they lock those refrigerators, if they handle the anthrax a little more carefully, I think the CDC believes they can stop this type of thing from happening in the future.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I mean, it seems like much more of a culture problem. One of the things in the report said that people would piggyback in through secure door areas, where one person uses the pass and two people walk through. How do you change that kind of behavior?

ALEX WAYNE: I’m sure it’s tough.

You could start by changing leadership at the CDC, I suppose. Nobody at this — at these hearings called for Dr. Frieden to resign. But, apparently, there — he said there seems — he has to impose some sort of a culture change.

I think what happens is sort of like, in any workplace, you get comfortable with your job, you think you know what you’re doing, and so you cut corners. You start piggybacking on security cards. You maybe use a torn glove when you know that what you’re handling perhaps isn’t all that dangerous to you personally.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Alex Wayne of Bloomberg News, thanks so much.

ALEX WAYNE: Sure. Thank you.