| WASHINGTON, July 15
WASHINGTON, July 15 A congressional panel
probing the mishandling of dangerous pathogens at federal
laboratories will try to determine if U.S. officials sought to
cover up an incident involving deadly avian flu, its Republican
chairman said on Tuesday.
Representative Tim Murphy said lawmakers will also look at
whether lab workers face adequate "consequences" for failing to
follow rules, and consider new legislation if penalties are
lacking when actions endanger the public.
"Is it lax adherence to protocol? Are people ignoring
protocol? Do they have this sense of mastery because they've
been doing it so long," said Murphy, who chairs the House Energy
and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
The panel is due to hear testimony on Wednesday from several
witnesses, including Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC has been engulfed in controversy since last month
when officials revealed that 84 lab workers had potentially been
exposed to live anthrax bacteria at its Atlanta campus. The
public health agency later disclosed the discovery of vials
containing smallpox at a National Institutes of Health facility
Murphy said the panel will also look closely at what many
experts view as the most troubling incident, which occurred in
March when workers at a high-security CDC influenza lab sent
samples containing a dangerous strain of bird flu to
counterparts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The incident
was discovered in May but went unreported to senior agency
leadership for six weeks.
"Was there a cover-up, particularly in the long delay in
notifying the head of CDC? Were they hurtling through levels of
bureaucracy? Was it incompetence? Or was it a cover-up?" Murphy
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said: "There's simply no
explanation we have right now as to why it took so long for this
incident to be reported."
The CDC is investigating the incident and is determined to
find out how it happened, Skinner said.
Murphy said the panel intends to scrutinize the actions of
Frieden himself, whom the administration has put in charge of
addressing the problems: "What actions did he take? Did he
follow what the leader should do in terms of responsibility
Lawmakers also hope to learn why a 2006 incident involving
anthrax went unreported to Congress until last week when Frieden
informed Murphy two days before revealing the mishap at a news
The Pennsylvania congressman said the number of incidents
have raised concern that the labs could be suffering from a
culture of sloppiness and complaisance.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)