Following anthrax, bird flu incidents, CDC reviews lab safety protocol

BY Diane Jeanty  July 11, 2014 at 5:33 PM EDT

A CDC scientist uses a pipette to transfer H7N9 virus into vials for sharing with partner laboratories for public health research purposes. Under new steps announced Friday, the CDC will now review lab procedures before transferring materials from labs. Photo by James Gathany via Wikimedia Commons

A CDC scientist uses a pipette to transfer H7N9 virus into vials for sharing with partner laboratories for public health research purposes. Under new steps announced Friday, the CDC will now review lab procedures before transferring materials from labs. Photo by James Gathany via Wikimedia Commons

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are calling for a change in the safety culture at the agency after multiple incidents regarding the mishandling of dangerous biological materials.

“These events should have never have happened,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC. “I’m disappointed by what happened and, frankly, I’m angry about it.”

In a call to reporters Friday, Frieden announced the release of an internal report that highlights steps to improve laboratory quality and safety. The internal review comes after two incidents at the CDC, one where about 75 workers at the agency were thought to have been accidentally exposed to live anthrax bacteria, and another involving the cross-contamination of H5N1 bird flu.

The report indicated that the anthrax exposure was a result of a scientist not following protocol when deactivating the material’s spores.

“A scientist made a mistake. They used a process they thought would kill the anthrax bacteria, but it may not have,” Frieden said.

The report also revealed that a sample of a low-pathogenic influenza virus was accidentally cross-contaminated with strains of the highly contagious H5N1 bird flu in a CDC influenza laboratory.

Following these lapses in protocol, the CDC closed down the lab and ordered a moratorium on the movement of biological materials from high-security biosafety level 3 or 4 labs, until safety procedures are assessed.

Out of the incidents, Frieden expressed that the bird flu incident was the most distressing as he was only notified in the past 48 hours even though the incident first occurred six weeks ago.

“I can think of no valid explanation,” Frieden said about the notification delay. “The influenza laboratory is a superb laboratory, so, the fact that this happened there is unsettling. This teaches us that we need to look at the culture of safety.”

On Tuesday, a separate event occurred at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., where six vials of smallpox were found in an unsecured storage area. The vials were immediately sent to the CDC as smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1980.

“Yesterday, we learned that two of the six vials found evidence of growth and is, in fact, smallpox,” Frieden said.

To address mounting safety concerns, Frieden announced the appointment of Dr. Michael Bell as the single Director of Laboratory Safety. Bell will report to Frieden and begin thorough investigations into how safety procedures are conducted, lab by lab.

“I think there’s some major systemic issues that we want to look at,” Bell said. “It’s not the little mistakes we’re concerned about. In this instance, we’re concerned about what is the framework that everyone’s using.”