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Controversy Claims CDC Lab Chief

11 February 2000 5:00 pm
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WASHINGTON, D.C.--A senior manager at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been reassigned as agency officials scramble to quell a widening controversy about the misuse of funds earmarked for specific diseases. Testifying yesterday before Congress, CDC chief Jeffrey Koplan announced that virologist Brian Mahy has been replaced temporarily by James LeDuc as head of the division of viral and rickettsial diseases.

Mahy came under fire last year when an investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services showed that his division had spent between $8.1 million and $12.9 million earmarked by Congress for research into chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) on a variety of other diseases. The report--which also charged that a CDC acting director had provided Congress with false information about the diversion--angered lawmakers and CFS patient groups. In response, Koplan offered his apologies and promised to restore the CFS funds, but he didn't take action against Mahy (Science, 7 January, p. 22).

Last week, however, Mahy's position was weakened further when a Washington Post report alleged that his division also mishandled money earmarked for hantavirus. Testifying before the House appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, Koplan said a preliminary inquiry has confirmed the allegation. CDC has hired private accountants to review the hantavirus program, Koplan said, followed by an investigation of all programs within the National Center for Infectious Diseases, one of 11 centers, institutes, and offices at CDC. In addition, Koplan has asked CDC managers to review all 133 programs and report within 90 days on any other cases where the agency provided inaccurate information to Congress.

Meanwhile, Koplan stressed that the diverted money had not been wasted but used "to combat other life-threatening infectious diseases," such as Ebola and Nipah virus. He blamed the diversions on CDC's culture, "which emphasizes getting things done and taking care of the administrative niceties afterwards." A CDC spokesperson said Mahy will stay at CDC but couldn't say in which position.

"It's a welcome piece of news," says Kimberly Kenney, executive director of the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association of America, a patient group that helped expose the diversion of CFS money. But scientists express sympathy for Mahy, who they believe was only trying to deal as best he could with emerging epidemics. "It's kind of sad," says Charles Calisher, a virologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "A guy does what he thinks is the right thing, and he gets lambasted."

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