Lawmakers blast CDC for unsafe handling of anthrax

Members of Congress had harsh words on Wednesday for Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over the recent rash of security lapses involving potentially deadly pathogens including anthrax.

The CDC has been under fire since mid-June, after news broke that at least 80 employees working at labs in Atlanta may have been exposed to live anthrax after researchers failed to safely transfer the bacteria from a high-containment lab.

An ongoing investigation has revealed the health agency repeatedly failed to follow appropriate safety protocols in its laboratories that handle dangerous specimens.

"Sooner or later that luck will run out and someone will get very sick and die," House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee chair Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said during opening remarks at the hearing on Capitol Hill. Murphy questioned Frieden's ability to manage -- and fire -- researchers who fail to adhere to protocols.

He told Frieden that Congress has zero tolerance for the lapse in safety precautions.

Murphy held up a Ziploc plastic bag containing petri dishes, which was how CDC lab workers reportedly transferred the anthrax samples during the incident in June. "This is like saying I didn't know the gun was loaded but someone got shot," Murphy told Frieden. "But you should always assume it is. For someone to say, 'Well, I didn't think the anthrax was live,' is unacceptable."

On June 19, lab workers at the CDC reported anthrax bacteria had not been properly deactivated prior to its transfer from a high containment lab on the CDC's Roybal campus in Atlanta, Ga. No one was sickened as a result of the incident but federal investigators have found evidence that many employees are not taking proper safety precautions on a regular basis.

The anthrax investigation uncovered other lapses, and federal officials shut down two additional labs at the Roybal campus on Friday after they learned that CDC workers sent the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture samples of a highly infectious strain of the virus that causes bird flu in March.

Also last week, it was learned that decades-old vials of smallpox bacteria were discovered in a laboratory refrigerator at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., which required a multi-agency response to transport the samples to the CDC. Federal officials reported that the bacteria in two of the vials was, in fact, live.

Frieden, who has been the director of the CDC since June 2009, told members of Congress that he has taken "sweeping measures" to address the situation.

He reported that a moratorium has been placed on the transfer of biological materials in CDC labs until a full investigation is complete. The two laboratories that were involved in the incident have been closed until further notice. Frieden also said that both an internal and external party are conducting a full investigation, as well as evaluating lab safety protocols at both the Roybal campus and other labs associated with the CDC. Officials will examine the inactivation protocols of bacteria and pathogens used in high-containment labs.

Frieden admitted to the committee that the CDC needs to develop a uniform set of guidelines, which encourage employees to report incidents that threaten health of workers and the general public.

"With the recent incidents we recognize the pattern at the CDC where we need to improve the culture of safety," he said during his testimony. He added: "We must do the work more safely and we will."

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