A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee is probing a recent anthrax lab incident and questioning safety practices at federal laboratories conducting research into bio-warfare and other matters of public health. The committee also seeks to determine if Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials sought to cover up an incident involving deadly avian flu occurring earlier this year. The panel is hearing testimony from several witnesses, including CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden and Dr. Nancy Kingsbury, managing director, Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Controversy arose last month when the public health agency revealed 84 employees may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria. Last week, the CDC further disclosed the discovery of vials containing smallpox at a National Institutes of Health facility as well as an incident occurring at its own high-security influenza lab, whereby scientists sent samples containing a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Discovered in May, the bird flu incident went unreported for six weeks.
In response to these mishaps, the CDC closed the influenza lab and placed a temporary moratorium on the transfer of select agents among high-level labs. Select agents are toxins and biological substances that pose a severe threat to public, animal, and/or plant health. During the hearing, Frieden said "we're looking at the moratorium in detail" and noted he would not lift the ban on transfer of select agents until a series of reviews and approvals are completed.
“Despite the number of red flags, these incidents keep happening,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) in his introductory comments. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) spoke of six Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) inspections, which identified "dozens" of disturbing reports and observations, including serious problems such as scientists wearing "torn gloves and exhaust systems blowing fumes in the wrong direction."
In its internal review of the unintentional release of viable anthrax, CDC stated the June 2014 incident at the Roybal Campus in Atlanta, Ga., was not a first. In fact, there have been four previous incidents during the past decade in which CDC staff members were potentially exposed to dangerous biological agents. In 2006, CDC’s Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology (BRRAT) laboratory transferred vials of anthrax DNA, believed to be inactivated, to two outside laboratories; later analysis detected viable Bacillus anthracis in the vials. Also in 2006, a shipment from another CDC lab was found to contain live Clostridium botulinum, another case of inadequate inactivation procedures. In 2009, tests showed a strain of Brucella, previously shipped to outside laboratories as early as 2001, was not the expected vaccine strain but actually a select agent. Finally, the bird flu cross-contamination incident involving both a CDC lab and a USDA lab, occurred earlier this year.
In her introductory statement, Kingsbury spoke of GAO’s previous and repeated reports that “a lack of strategic planning and oversight of the biosafety laboratories” exists. A 2013 report issued by the GAO "found that the absence of national standards for laboratory design, construction, commissioning, operations, and maintenance raised concerns and increased the risk of laboratory accidents.” When questioned about her concerns regarding the number of biosafety laboratories, Kingsbury noted, “Nobody knows how many there are and nobody knows how many we need.”