Via The New York Times: After Lapses, C.D.C. Admits a Lax Culture at Labs. Excerpt from a must-read article:
ATLANTA — Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spent much of Wednesday completing a report that would let the public see, in embarrassing detail, how the sloppy handling of anthrax by scientists at its headquarters here had potentially exposed dozens of employees to the deadly bacteria.
But just as he was sitting down for a late-afternoon lunch at his Washington, D.C., office, an urgent call came in. There had been another accident, this one just as disturbing, if not more so — and no one in the agency’s top leadership had been informed about it until that Monday, though the C.D.C.’s lab had been told about it more than a month earlier.
C.D.C. workers had somehow shipped a dangerous strain of avian influenza to a poultry research lab run by the Department of Agriculture. Known as H5N1, the virus had killed more than half of the 650 people who had been infected with it since 2003.
“I was, just frankly, stunned and appalled,” Dr. Frieden said in an interview Saturday.
The recent revelations have created a crisis of faith in the federal agency, prompting calls for an independent body to investigate such episodes in the future, as well as for sweeping changes at the agency and to a sprawling web of research labs that has grown after the 2001 terror attacks led to an intensified focus on microbes that could be used as biological weapons.
Dr. Michael Bell, a 19-year C.D.C. veteran who has been appointed by Dr. Frieden to a new position overseeing laboratory safety, said in an interview Saturday that he was most concerned about the “potential for hubris” among researchers who grow so inured to the daily grind of working with deadly microbes that they cease to follow safety protocols.The agency both conducts that research and is charged with ensuring that other labs adhere to federal safety standards.
The agency’s internal investigation of the troubling events, made public Friday, found that senior staff members had failed to write up a plan for researchers to follow in the anthrax study. It also faulted scientists who neglected to review the existing literature before working with the deadly pathogen, and found that the agency was ill-prepared to respond to a potential exposure episode.
“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,” Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, wrote in an email Saturday. “It is clear that the C.D.C. cannot be relied upon to police its own select-agent labs.”