The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has closed its influenza research center and halted all biological materials shipments from its highest level containment labs following lab safety breaches that endangered dozens of employees.
CDC’s announcement came Friday after a report showed that a safety breach in June put employees at risk of contracting anthrax, although none have shown signs of illness. The agency also identified a separate incident where a strain of the highly contagious avian flu virus H5N1 was shipped without proper precautions.
CDC Director Tom Frieden says the breaches raise “serious and troubling questions” about the nation’s culture of laboratory safety. “Fundamentally, what they revealed was totally unacceptable behavior. These events should never have happened.”
The internal anthrax report says CDC scientists failed to follow written laboratory safety plans. The labs also did not have adequate oversight of scientists or clear guidelines for determining when a biological agent was inactivated and safe for transport.
In June, live anthrax bacteria were being inactivated in a biosafety level 3 (BSL3) laboratory for use in labs designed with fewer safety precautions. But the scientists involved used a chemical procedure that may not have fully inactivated the samples. Those samples were later used by scientists in other labs without the proper precautions for working with the live anthrax virus.
As a result of the incident, the Bioterrorism Rapid Response & Advanced Technology laboratory that failed to fully inactivate the anthrax was closed in June and will remain closed until it is deemed safe.
In addition, CDC’s BSL3 and BSL4 labs will not be able to transfer any materials, internally or externally, until a CDC advisory committee has completed its review of safety procedures. BSL3 laboratories allow researchers to safely work with infectious respiratory contagions that can cause serious infections, according to the CDC website. This includes live infectious bacteria, which are not allowed at lower-level laboratories. BSL4 laboratories are reserved for the most highly contagious and life-threatening agents for which there is no vaccine or treatment.
In the influenza incident, a shipment of a nonpathogenic avian influenza virus was inadvertently contaminated by the H5N1 virus, which is highly contagious. The contaminated sample was then shipped to the Department of Agriculture. The influenza lab has been shut down until an investigation of the incident can be completed.
In addition to actions at the individual laboratory, CDC will be identifying who at the agency will be accountable for laboratory safety, establishing an outside lab safety advisory committee, and creating a rapid response team for future incidents. It will also examine the implications for research labs nationwide.
Frieden expressed frustration and dismay during an hour-long press conference. The American people “may be wondering whether we’re doing what we need to do to keep them safe and to keep our workers safe,” he said. “I’m disappointed by what happened and, frankly, I’m angry about it.”