Head of CDC anthrax lab resigns

CBS News

The head of the government lab that may have exposed dozens of scientists and staff to live anthrax has resigned.

Michael Farrell, who was the head of the Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 2009, submitted his resignation Tuesday, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

Farrell declined interview requests, said Skinner, who also refused to answer questions about what blame has been placed on Farrell in the events that led to the anthrax incident. Skinner did not reveal whether Farrell was asked to resign.

As many as 84 employees of the lab on the CDC's Atlanta campus may have been potentially exposed to live anthrax bacteria last month because of serious safety lapses. The CDC reported that workers at the bioterror lab did not follow safety protocols while preparing the bacteria to be moved to lower-security labs.

"Workers, believing the samples were inactivated, were not wearing adequate personal protective equipment while handling the material," the agency explained in the statement. "Environmental sampling was done, lab and hallway areas were decontaminated and laboratories will be re-opened when safe to operate."

Meanwhile, it was also revealed recently that earlier this year CDC staff lost track of samples of bird flu virus, which was accidentally contaminated with a deadlier strain and then added to a shipment in March from a secure CDC lab to another one run by the Agriculture Department in Athens, Georgia.

In a recent interview with CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said the error was discovered in late May but he was not told about it until the second week of July.

"I remember it vividly," Frieden said. "I was sitting at my desk in our Washington office, and I was stunned and appalled that this could have happened and that there could have been this type of delay in notification."

So far there have been no reports of infections resulting from either of the incidents; however, Frieden said that the flu incident was particularly concerning, as flu, unlike anthrax, can spread easily.

Frieden said that the CDC officials recognize both incidents reflected systemic safety problems in the CDC labs that handle dangerous germs.

In the aftermath of the anthrax and flu accidents, the CDC shut down two research labs this month and stopped shipping particularly dangerous bacteria to other labs. That decision came days after the government revealed the discovery of six forgotten vials of smallpox virus in a laboratory building at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland.