Alarm over biosafety blunders

Jon is a staff writer for Science.

Tom Frieden, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), held an alarming press conference on 11 July, describing lab mistakes with three deadly pathogens and vowing to "do everything in my power to make sure that nothing like this happens again." In separate incidents at CDC in Atlanta, a dangerous influenza virus unwittingly contaminated a sample of a benign one, and a supposedly inactivated batch of anthrax bacteria turned out to be alive. At the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, workers cleaning out a cold storage room discovered vials that held freeze-dried smallpox virus from 1954, which should have been destroyed decades ago; CDC scientists later discovered that they could reconstitute infectious smallpox virus from at least two of the six vials discovered. Fallout from the blunders includes a temporary CDC moratorium on shipping dangerous pathogens, the closing of two involved CDC labs, congressional inquiries, and increased scrutiny of controversial "gain-of-function" research that intentionally makes influenza virus strains more dangerous to humans in order to better understand the factors behind its pathogenicity.

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