Government agencies and laboratories responsible for the safe handling and oversight of deadly microbes and pathogens have a lot to answer for given the serious mishaps that have come to light.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with other officials and biosafety experts testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Wednesday to review an accident last month in which dozens of CDC employees were potentially exposed to deadly anthrax spores.
The bacteria were sent from one laboratory without being properly killed off, and could have infected dozens of people along the way, the New York Times reports. So far, no one has fallen ill, but Dr. Frieden called the episode a "tipping point" that has forced the agency to realize that safety procedures must be improved.
In fact, the CDC's own report on the June incident details four other times that pathogens inappropriately left high-security labs since 2006, including an earlier case involving anthrax. While investigating the latest mishap, Frieden also discovered that a contagious strain of avian flue was unintentionally shipped to a lower security Department of Agriculture lab in March.
Frieden admitted that recent laboratory accidents involving flue viruses and anthrax were not isolated mistakes, but rather part of a broader problem of unsafe practices at the agency.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery, but John Tozzi from Bloomberg Businessweek said this pattern shouldn't have come as a surprise. Government watchdogs have warned for years about weaknesses in federal labs dealing with dangerous bugs.
Nancy Kingsbury, a managing director with the Government Accountability Office, told Congress in 2009 that the U.S. needed more oversight in light of lab safety lapses. "Taken as a whole, these incidents demonstrate failures of systems and procedures meant to maintain biosafety in high-containment laboratories," she said five years ago
Lawmakers were also sharply critical of the CDC's response to the latest incident, the Times reports. A memo by the subcommittee detailed a series of lapses, including that one of the anthrax labs was not properly secured on the day the release became known, so people tracked in and out. Workers had not been trained in how to decontaminate the lab, and no one knew who was in charge of decontamination. The clinic to care for potentially exposed employees was overwhelmed, physical exams were delayed and yet clinic officials did not request more staff members. Once the accident was recognized, the amount of anthrax bacteria involved and its location were not recorded.
In addition to a thorough review of its safety procedures, Frieden said the CDC also needs to keep workers from getting complacent. "Sometimes if you work year in and year out with pathogens that are scary, you can get inured to that danger," he testified.
The problem goes beyond the CDC, Bloomberg reports. Vials of live smallpox virus dating from 1954 were recently discovered in a storage room in a laboratory belonging to the Food and Drug Administration, on the campus of the National Institute of Health. The vials were part of a larger cache of infectious agents and other biological materials -- 12 boxes containing 327 vials, many labeled with names of diseases, including dengue, influenza and Q fever.
Exposure of any of these pathogens into the general population, accidental or otherwise, could kills scores of people before they are even detected and create widespread panic throughout the country. It's scary that the government doesn't have a better handle on something so deadly.
A half-dozen U.S. agencies operate labs that deal with dangerous microbes, but no one official or entity in Washington is in charge of their safety, Kingsbury told the House panel Wednesday, repeating points she made five years ago.
An outside expert who testified, Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist and laboratory director from Rutgers University, said this oversight should come from outside the CDC. He said the CDC funds and conducts research, and also regulates it and oversees its safety -- a serious conflict of interest, the Times reports. Ebright recommended that an independent agency be established to regulate research with dangerous organisms.
The number of labs dealing with infectious microbes mushroomed after the anthrax attacks of 2001, to respond to a perceived threat of biological terrorism, Bloomberg reports. The FBI concluded in 2010 that those incidents, which killed five people, were the result of a rogue Army scientist who used anthrax from a military lab.
In the years since, the country has never comprehensively assessed its network of labs that handle potentially dangerous pathogens, Kingsbury told the House panel Wednesday. "How many of these laboratories do we really need, for what purpose, against what threat?" she asked.
These are questions the U.S.government needs to answer because, as Bloomberg notes, the more labs handling these pathogens the greater the risk that someone will be inadvertently exposed. We would add that the risk is even greater if some evil-doer -- be it a rogue Army scientist, a homegrown terrorist or a foreign infiltrator -- takes advantage of safety and security lapses to inflict maximum damage with these bioweapons of mass destruction.