The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently faced scrutiny in June after foregoing a safety protocol to contain anthrax exposure during counter-bioterrorism research. Now investigators have discovered a CDC scientist committed serious safety lapses in cross-contaminating a specimen of benign bird flu H9N2 with a deadly strain of the virus, H5N1.
The CDC released an internal report explaining some of the lapses that could have put the public's health in jeopardy. This is the first report where the CDC reveals an in-depth summary of the cross-contamination incident. The report says that in January 2014, contaminated bird flu specimens were sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Athens, Ga., where the contamination was first discovered.
The specimens were then sent to another lab where no one had been notified about the contamination. Since scientists were unaware of the contaminated specimen, they continued to experiment with the H5N1 strain, USA Today reported. Luckily, there were no reports of bird flu outbreak among the scientists.
“We were lucky, in this episode, there was no risk to human health. But being lucky with that doesn’t mean we’re not taking this seriously,” Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told USA Today. She added that the scientist responsible for the cross-contamination, and other staff involved, would not be identified but that disciplinary action was "in process."
Investigators say this mistake was likely due to an overworked scientist who did not follow standard CDC lab procedures. According to the CDC report, the scientist performed cell culture work on two viruses in only 51 minutes — not enough time to follow all necessary protocols. Investigators suspect the lab scientist handled both viruses in the biosecurity cabinet at the same time, or that the incubator could have been contaminated.
CDC Employees Exposed To Live Anthrax
In June, CDC lab workers reportedly skipped saftety protocol to inactivate Bacillus anthracis before sending samples off to a lower-security lab. Instead of monitoring spores for 48 hours to ensure dead bacteria, they waited 24 hours. Over 80 people were exposed to the bacteria, but no one fell ill, and all were subsequently vaccinated and given antibiotics. Following both the bird flu and anthranx incidents, the CDC says human health was not put at risk.
The CDC is currently working on new initiatives to improve lab safety. They have already closed the flu lab that was involved with the incident and has been going over security procedures with all of the agency’s labs that handle these dangerous specimens. They are also testing cross-contamination before transferring specimens to other labs. Moving forward, the CDC has listed several steps they plan to take in order to avoid new lapses: reassessing laboratory procedures related to H5N1 and other HPAI viruses, writing new approved policies to prevent new cross-contamination incidents, and ensuring that CDC personnel follow all procedures accurately.