Originally published on July 18, 2014, at NationofChange.org
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified on Wednesday to members of Congress regarding the CDC’s recent history of potentially lethal mistakes and irresponsibility. Possibly exposing employees to deadly strains of anthrax and bird flu in separate incidents, the CDC has decided to temporarily cease deliveries of all infectious agents from its highest‐security labs.
“These events revealed totally unacceptable behavior,” Dr. Frieden said. “They should never have happened. I’m upset, I’m angry, I’ve lost sleep over this, and I’m working on it until the issue is resolved.”
In response to the anthrax scare, Rep. Tim Murphy, chair of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee stated, “Dr. Frieden, this is like saying ‘I didn’t know the gun was loaded, but somebody got shot. But you should always assume it is. For someone to say, ‘Well, I didn’t think the anthrax was live,’ is unacceptable.”
On June 5, CDC scientists in the bioterrorism rapid response lab were testing a new method to kill anthrax bacteria with chemicals instead of radiation. After chemically treating the bacteria, samples were incubated for 24 hours. When discovering no colonies growing on the samples, the scientists assumed the bacteria had died and sent them to low‐security labs. Without advanced protective gear or anthrax vaccinations, the scientists in these labs could have been exposed to the lethal pathogen.
Since the door to an autoclave had malfunctioned, the samples were left in an incubator for six days. A lab technician eventually noticed bacteria growing on the believed dead anthrax spores. Untrained in how to decontaminate the labs, none of the employees even knew who was in charge of decontamination.
Inundated with potentially exposed patients, clinic officials were severely understaffed yet did not request any assistance. At least 62 employees have now received anthrax vaccinations and antibiotics. After reporting the accident, the amount of anthrax bacteria involved and its location were suspiciously not included in the report.
On May 23, scientists at the US Department of Agriculture found their research birds dead. A CDC lab had accidentally cross‐contaminated a benign strain of bird flu with the deadly H5N1 strain before shipping the birds to the USDA lab.
On July 1, six sealed vials of smallpox were located in a Food and Drug Administration lab at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 by the World Health Organization. The only two labs authorized to retain smallpox samples are the CDC in Atlanta and a laboratory in Novosibirsk, Russia. Included with the six vials were twelve boxes containing 327 vials holding other infectious agents.
After the ventilation system malfunctioned in a CDC building in 2007, duct tape was used to seal a containment door of a lab where scientists conducted research on Q Fever. In an email to several agency officials, including CDC Director Thomas Frieden, CDC animal resources biologist Kismet Scarborough wrote, “[The CDC] will do anything…to hide the fact that we have serious problems with the airflow and containment in this whole building.”
Due to lax security, an unauthorized man was discovered in a restricted area of the Biosafety Level 3 labs. After bypassing several unlocked doors, he was found in an animal‐holding area where they test the SARS virus, monkeypox, and anthrax. In a recent report, USDA inspectors revealed CDC employees using Ziploc bags to transport “select agent materials.”
In a press release dated May 15, 2009, President Obama said, “America relies on a strong public health system and the work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is critical to our mission to preserve and protect the health and safety of our citizens. Dr. Frieden is an expert in preparedness and response to health emergencies…”