CDC Shuts Down Labs to Prevent Infectious Germ Outbreak

Two Centers for Disease Control (CDC) research labs in Atlanta, Georgia, were shut down due to mistakes that could have caused possible outbreak of anthrax and bird flu, according to a CDC press conference held on July 11, 2014. Shipments of deadly germs to and from Atlanta and Colorado labs were also halted. The CDC also admitted that in the past 10 years, there were three other incidents that could have led to the release of dangerous germs in labs and endangered lab workers. The CDC press release coincided with a government announcement released just a few days prior regarding an incident involving 60-year-old vials of smallpox virus that had been forgotten in a lab building at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland. A couple of the vials had the live virus and all were to be destroyed.

Anthrax Scare

In June 2014, an Atlanta, Georgia, bioterrorism lab worker who was new to the facility unnecessarily experimented with live anthrax. Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by Bacillus anthracis bacteria that can be found in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals. In rare occurrences, people can get sick with anthrax if they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products. The scientist did not follow the CDC’s written study plans and potentially exposed dozens of other lab workers to the bacteria. The CDC offered treatment to them. It was also discovered at the Atlanta lab that samples weren’t properly sterilized before being sent out to two other less secure CDC labs.

In response to this incident, Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC, said that protocols for handling deadly germs will be examined by internal and outside panels and that appropriate steps will be taken against any employees involved in the safety incidents.

Bird Flu Incident

A sample of an animal flu virus was accidentally contaminated with a deadly bird flu germ. The infectious sample was sent to another lab run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and in May 2014, the USDA lab discovered the contamination. The USDA did not report the problem until July. Dr. Frieden expressed his anger over the reporting delay and said that employees could be disciplined for both committing errors and not reporting them.

Agency Response

In response to both incidents, the CDC halted shipment of all infectious samples from research labs in Atlanta and Fort Collins, Colorado that were specially built to handle the most dangerous infectious germs. The labs seek to develop vaccines and medications for the germs, along with expedient methods for diagnosing of their resulting diseases. The shipment moratorium will remain effective pending review by an advisory committee.

Sixteen U.S. senators sent a letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, requesting careful review of safety policies at HHS agencies, including the CDC and the NIH. Thankfully, in all incidents no workers or members of the general population were sickened.