Safety lapses are common in US labs that handle deadly pathogens, experts tell Congress

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 17 July 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g4679
  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. 1Seattle

Safety lapses in US laboratories that study deadly pathogens are far too common, experts have told a congressional hearing on reports that scientists at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) repeatedly violated safety protocols when working with samples of anthrax, avian influenza, and other deadly pathogens.

The hearing, by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, was prompted by an incident in June in which scores of CDC employees were potentially exposed to anthrax after a laboratory worker failed to adequately sterilize a sample of the deadly bacterium. A CDC review of the incident released last week found additional lapses, including the accidental transfer of a highly pathogenic strain of the H5N1 influenza, or “bird flu.”1

Tim Murphy, a Republican Representative for Pennsylvania who chaired the hearing, said that the anthrax incident and other newly disclosed safety lapses at CDC laboratories “raised serious questions about the CDC’s ability to safeguard properly select agents in its own labs.” Select agents are natural or manmade organisms or toxins that pose a severe threat to health.

In his testimony Tom Frieden, CDC director, told the committee that none of the safety lapses had caused any illnesses but that the “incidents should never have happened, and the lack of adequate procedures and oversight that allowed them to happen was totally unacceptable.” Previous safety failures had prompted the CDC to …

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