CDC Under Fire for Failing to Heed Warnings of Lack of Safety in Bioterror Labs

Infectious Waste

July 28th, 2014

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By CHHS Research Assistant Andrew Geltman

Call it an educated prediction, keen foresight, or just a good guess, the Center for Health and Homeland Security (CHHS) has been warning about the potential dangers of mishandled bacterial and viral agents at our nation’s bioterrorism research facility since 2009 when Founder and Director Michael Greenberger testified before Congress. At the time Director Greenberger urged caution and an overhaul of the regulatory regime that governed the handling of dangerous agents. And as recently as this February, CHHS and the Middle Atlantic Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging and Infectious Diseases hosted a conference to discuss the critical balancing act of Dual Use Research of Concern – the study of deadly pathogens in order to develop counter measures in the event of an outbreak or bioterrorist attack.

CHHS is not the only one to point out the potential public health hazards of biological research if not managed properly.  Other organizations such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also urged increased caution in the handling of so called “selected agents” by research laboratories. Unfortunately, it seems that many of these warnings went unheeded by the agency in charge of overseeing these labs, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The recent discovery of vials of smallpox and other agents from the 1950s, found in a cardboard box, has brought to light CDC’s various safety violations. Although the vials were improperly stored for decades no one was exposed to the contagions, but the pathogens remained alive, active, and deadly. The CDC admits that there have been at least five major safety violations in the past decade, including the shipping of Anthrax across the country in Ziploc bags and mistakenly sending the deadly Avian Influenza (H5N1 virus) to a lab that was expecting to receive a lesser flu strain. A series of cascading events, demonstrating that the CDC has not been able to ensure safety and security in its own labs, lead to Congressional inquiries at which the CDC director, Tom Friedan described the agency as having “an insufficient culture of safety.” The failures of the CDC calls into question the agency’s ability to effectively regulate the storage and study of deadly agents.

While attempting to determine proper safety and security procedures and rectify the problems identified by various investigations, the CDC has closed the Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Technology Laboratory (BRRAT). BRRAT is an important part of our public health system that helps mitigate the risk from bioterrorism. The facility was at the center of many of the previously reported safety violations that put the nation at risk. The head of the lab, Thomas Skinner, was reassigned from the post and subsequently resigned. As Michael T. Osterholm, a bioterrorism expert stated, the resignation “shows that the CDC is making a good-faith effort to identify where lapses occurred and address them.”

Some still, however, have doubts about the CDC’s efforts to fix the agency’s safety problems. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee stated, “We have had multiple hearings on these problems over the years. In 2006 and 2007, we had problems at the CDC facility in Fort Collins. These issues are not resolving themselves.” Lawmakers’ skepticism has largely grown due to disregard of repeated warnings by the GAO and others about the lack of proper safety protocols at CDC facilities.

While the efforts so far by the CDC to take the severity of the problem they face seriously are a good first step, more corrective actions are needed. Research is an important part of keeping citizens safe from potential bioterrorism, or from naturally-occurring pandemics.  But the lack of a “culture of safety” in the handling of deadly pathogens is unacceptable and must be changed. The resignation of the head of BRRAT helps address cultural problems at the CDC by sending an important message to future leaders: failing to properly secure hazardous biological materials will not be tolerated.

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