A vial of the smallpox found earlier this month at NIH.

CDC

A vial of the smallpox found earlier this month at NIH.

Congress asks why CDC safety problems persist

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

A U.S. House of Representatives investigative committee today grilled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden about an accident last month with anthrax and other biosafety problems with dangerous pathogens in his agency’s labs—including some revealed years ago that supposedly led to reforms. Frieden explained that his agency failed to see “the pattern” that the latest incidents have exposed.

The hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Committee investigations subcommittee came in response to a June incident in which CDC scientists in Atlanta moved anthrax samples they mistakenly thought were inactivated from high-containment labs to less secure ones, potentially exposing dozens of workers. Last week, two more problems came to light: a recent CDC shipment of flu samples contaminated with the deadly H5N1 avian influenza and the discovery of smallpox vials from 1954 in a government lab at the National Institutes of Health. The incidents prompted Frieden to announce on Friday several actions to improve safety, including the closure of two CDC labs and a moratorium on shipping samples from the agency’s high-containment labs until new procedures are put in place.

Legislators were also troubled by the findings in a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) branch that oversees CDC’s work with select agents, or pathogens that could potentially be used as bioweapons. The inspectors, from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), found additional problems, including expired disinfectant, anthrax stored in unsecure freezers and labs, samples stored in Ziploc bags, and a lack of preparation at CDC’s clinic for a large anthrax exposure.

The incidents “have raised very serious questions about the CDC’s ability to safeguard properly select agents in its own labs,” said subcommittee chair Tim Murphy (R–PA), asking whether CDC’s description of them as a “wake-up call” is adequate. Several legislators noted similar incidents at CDC over the past decade and a long list of reports finding broad problems with biosafety at CDC from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general.

CDC responded adequately to the earlier incidents, according to Frieden, but failed to appreciate the extent of the problem. “We recognize the pattern at CDC where we need to greatly improve the culture of safety, and I am overseeing sweeping measures to improve that culture of safety,” he said.

Frieden said part of the problem is that scientists who have spent years studying deadly pathogens in nature can become “inured to that danger” in their own labs. Both he and an APHIS associate deputy administrator testified that the existing rules are adequate to deal with the problem and that no new legislation is needed.

Lawmakers asked how the moratorium on shipments will affect CDC’s ongoing work. Frieden said the halt has raised concerns from researchers working on drug-resistant tuberculosis, the Ebola outbreak in Africa, and preparations for next season’s influenza vaccine. CDC has made it a priority to quickly resume shipments from labs involving patient health and public health emergencies, he said.

Some members wondered if the proliferation of labs working on select agents not just at CDC but at other agencies and universities since the 2001 anthrax attacks has increased the risk of an accidental release. One witness, GAO researcher Nancy Kingsbury, noted that there is no single entity that overseas biosafety and biosecurity or decides how many labs are needed. “The more important issue is, … How many of these laboratories do we really need for what purpose against what threat?’ ” Congress may need to mandate a national strategy for these labs—although it is not clear which agency would conduct it, Kingsbury said.

CDC’s internal anthrax investigation concluded that minimizing the number of labs and staff at CDC working with select agents would improve safety. Asked for his view of the growing overall number of U.S. biocontainment labs, Frieden responded that “this is a complicated topic. … But just logically, the more places where work with dangerous pathogens goes on, the more possibility there is of accidents or accidental releases.”

 Microbiologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, urged the panel to consider moving oversight of select agent labs from CDC and USDA to another agency that does not fund or conduct such work itself as a way to avoid conflicts of interest. Ebright has long pushed for reducing the number of U.S. labs doing select agent work, and he told the panel the number should be whittled from the current more than 1000 to fewer than 50.

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