U.S. inspectors find further anthrax violations, mishandling

(Reuters) - A second U.S. investigation into the anthrax breach at federal laboratories found major safety lapses, from keys left in supposedly locked refrigerators containing anthrax to the use of disinfectants that had passed their use-by dates, according to a document released by lawmakers on Monday.

The Centers for Disease Control sign is seen at its main facility in Atlanta, Georgia June 20, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

The findings go beyond details provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its account of lapses that led to the potential exposure of more than 80 lab workers to live anthrax bacteria in June.

A subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce will hold a hearing on Wednesday about CDC’s mishandling of anthrax as well as of a second deadly microbe, avian influenza.

In addition to asking CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden about the anthrax and bird flu incidents, the subcommittee is expected to probe whether those biosafety lapses have implications for federal oversight of “select agents,” the most dangerous pathogens, and the high-containment labs that handle them.

The parallel investigation, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), was conducted from June 23 to July 3.

APHIS found numerous violations of federal rules for handling dangerous microbes, according to the congressional document. For instance, unidentified “materials” were carried from one CDC lab to another in two plastic Ziploc bags, which did not meet the requirement that such containers be “durable.”

In addition, anthrax was stored in refrigerators in an unrestricted hallway. The key to one “sat in its lock,” APHIS found. During its inspection, “containers of anthrax were missing and had to be tracked and located by the inspection team,” while other samples sat in an unlocked lab that had not received approval to handle select agents.

APHIS submitted its report to the CDC on July 10, a day before CDC released its own. [ID:nL2N0PM207]

“The reason we didn’t reference the APHIS report in our report is we received it on the day ours was being prepared for release,” said CDC spokesman Tom Skinner, adding that the agency would “work as quickly as we can to respond to the issues” that APHIS had discovered.

Other findings from the APHIS report: Once CDC researchers realized that viable anthrax had been transferred to a lab lacking the biosafety equipment to handle it, workers in the receiving lab tried to decontaminate vials and bags that might have come in contact with the sample. They “could not remember if they used expired bleach” to do that, according to the congressional document.

In addition, CDC workers, including those in the biodefense lab who were cleared to work with anthrax, “had not been trained to decontaminate all relevant areas or properly use decontaminants,” the report said.

Once scores of CDC workers were potentially exposed to anthrax and sought help at CDC’s on-site clinic, the clinic struggled to respond. Workers “left the clinic without knowing the extent of their risk,” and some were not examined for five days, the report said. Others were told to check themselves for symptoms of anthrax infection rather than visit the clinic.

CDC officials failed to properly secure one of the labs that received live anthrax, with the result that people continued to go in “without approval.” It took days to post signs warning of potential anthrax exposure.

Reporting by Sharon Begley in New York, David Morgan in Washington ad Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Richard Chang