(Adds Frieden quotes, details on calls for laboratory review)
By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, July 16 U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday
faulted a "dangerous pattern" of safety lapses at government
laboratories handling deadly pathogens such as anthrax and avian
flu, calling for an overhaul of controls at the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.
Members of a House Energy and Commerce Committee
subcommittee cited new information on breaches previously
unreported by CDC, which is under scrutiny for the potential
exposure of more than 80 lab workers to live anthrax bacteria in
June. No one has fallen sick due to the lapses.
The criticism, equally shared by Democratic and Republican
lawmakers, was directed at CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden at a
hearing. The incidents at the CDC's Atlanta campus have sparked
fresh concerns over the lack of independent oversight of
potentially dangerous research nationwide, even as the number of
labs doing such work has surged in recent years.
Frieden was pressed for answers on why the government's most
respected laboratories were not prepared to report or prevent
dozens of breaches identified by federal investigators, and
whether its staff recognized the huge risk to the public if
dangerous microbes were to escape its labs.
"A dangerous, very dangerous pattern is emerging and there
are a lot of unknowns out there," Committee Chairman Fred Upton,
a Michigan Republican, said at the hearing. "Why do these events
Frieden replied that the agency was instituting sweeping
measures to improve internal controls on such research, which is
aimed at everything from developing vaccines to prevent disease
outbreaks to refining the response to bioterror attacks.
The CDC has already announced the closure of two labs
responsible for the release of pathogens and suspended any
sample transfers from all of its high-security labs until their
safety protocols are reviewed. A CDC scientist, Dr. Mike Bell,
has been appointed to head its laboratory safety effort.
"While we have scientists who are the best in the world at
what they do, they have not always applied that same rigor to
safety," Frieden said. "In hindsight, we realize we missed a
crucial pattern: a pattern of incidents that reflect the need
to improve the culture of safety at CDC."
Frieden said he was unaware of additional violations of
safety and security procedures, but that additional examples
could come to light as the agency improves internal
A LOADED GUN
In the case of the anthrax incident, Frieden reiterated that
workers at a high-security CDC lab believed they had inactivated
the bacteria before transferring samples to lower-security labs,
where workers use less protective gear.
"Dr. Frieden, this is like saying 'I didn't know the gun was
loaded, but somebody got shot,'" said Tim Murphy, chair of the
Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. "But you should
always assume it is. For someone to say, 'Well, I didn't think
the anthrax was live,' is unacceptable."
The lawmakers pressed Frieden and another witness, Nancy
Kingsbury of the Government Accountability Office, on how many
labs working with dangerous pathogens the nation needs, and why
there is no single agency that makes that determination.
Kingsbury stressed the lack of a framework to oversee such
research, and said setting national standards would require
Congress to act.
Lawmakers also released new disclosures about CDC lapses
ahead of the hearing. Federal investigators found dozens of
safety and security problems at CDC labs handling dangerous
pathogens in the 18 months prior to the release in June of live
anthrax to a lab not equipped to work with it, according to a
memo by Democratic committee members released on Wednesday.
The investigators, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
found equipment failures, an inability to document staff
training and missing signatures on required biosafety plans.
Other failures included unauthorized access to labs and
improperly documenting entries and exits, posing risks to
biosecurity, or the theft of potentially lethal microbes.
The findings stem from six inspections at the CDC's Atlanta
campus between January 2013 and March 2014.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Begley in New York and Julie
Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Chizu
Nomiyama, Matthew Lewis and Dan Grebler)