CDC closes labs after accidents with pathogens

The New York TimesJuly 11, 2014 

MED CDC Anthrax

FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2013, file photo, a sign marks the entrance to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,in Atlanta.

DAVID GOLDMAN — AP

After potentially serious back-to-back laboratory accidents, federal health officials announced Friday that they had temporarily closed the flu and anthrax laboratories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and halted shipments of all infectious agents from the agency’s highest-security labs.

The accidents, and the CDC’s emphatic response to them, could have important consequences for the many laboratories that store high-risk agents and the few that, even more controversially, specialize in making them more dangerous for research purposes.

If the CDC – which the agency’s director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, called “the reference laboratory to the world” – had multiple accidents that could, in theory, have killed both staff members and people outside, there will undoubtedly be calls for stricter controls on other university, military and private laboratories.

In one episode last month, at least 62 CDC employees may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria after potentially infectious samples were sent to laboratories unequipped to handle them. Employees not wearing protective gear worked with bacteria that were supposed to have been killed but may not have been. All were offered a vaccine and antibiotics, and the agency said it believed no one was in danger.

In a second accident, disclosed Friday, a CDC lab accidentally contaminated a relatively benign flu sample with a dangerous H5N1 bird flu strain that has killed 386 people since 2003. A U.S. Agriculture Department laboratory realized that the strain was more dangerous than expected and alerted the CDC.

In addition to those mistakes, Frieden also announced Friday that two of six vials of smallpox recently found stored in a National Institutes of Health laboratory since 1954 contained live virus capable of infecting people.

All the samples will be destroyed as soon as the genomes of the virus in them can be sequenced.

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