September 15, 2015 / 8:45 PM / 4 years ago

CDC appoints new safety czar to improve handling of dangerous pathogens

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday tapped Dr. Stephen Monroe, a longtime lab scientist and agency insider, to oversee the safe handling of dangerous pathogens by more than 2,000 scientists in the agency’s more than 150 labs.

Spores from the Sterne strain of anthrax bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) are pictured in this handout scanning electron micrograph (SEM) obtained by Reuters May 28, 2015. REUTERS/Center for Disease Control/Handout via Reuters

Monroe becomes the CDC’s first permanent associate director of lab safety, reporting directly to the director.

Creating a new high-level safety position was a key recommendation of a months-long internal investigation into the mishandling of anthrax, bird flu and Ebola in CDC labs in 2014, according to an internal CDC memo obtained by Reuters in December.

Monroe’s appointment comes more than a year after CDC chief Dr. Thomas Frieden faced an angry panel of lawmakers in the summer of 2014 who faulted a “dangerous pattern” of safety lapses in CDC labs, and called for an overhaul at the agency.

CDC spokesman Tom Skinner explained the lag in hiring the lab safety director by saying: “The job requires a very specific and special skill set. Finding the right person has simply taken time because of that.”

Since 2014, several other government labs have reported mishandling of pathogens, including the U.S. FDA’s disclosure in July 2014 that if found vials of smallpox from the 1950s, and most recently, the disclosure that the U.S. Defense Department botched the handling of live anthrax and Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes the plague.

Monroe has spent 28 years in various scientific posts at CDC, including 11 years as lab scientist working with pathogens such as anthrax, Ebola and Marburg.

In an interview with Reuters, he said his credibility as a bench scientist - his “bench cred” - should go a long way toward bringing about the necessary culture change to help elevate lab safety at the agency.

One of his first priorities is to focus on patterns of errors that will allow CDC to quickly identify weaknesses in process that can lead to safety lapses.

That might have helped CDC avoid repeated problems with steps needed to inactivate deadly pathogens, such as anthrax or bird flu, before they were shipped to laboratories with lower levels of biosecurity protections.

“What became clear last year with the incidents was that we, as an agency, were responding to incidents one at a time and not recognizing patterns,” Monroe said.

He also plans to establish best practices for lab science and safety that will be adopted agency-wide.

Several experts had criticized CDC because its labs operated in silos, allowing its world-class scientists to set their own policies on how keep their labs safe.

“What we’re trying to do is have a more consistent approach to things so we can use the same yardstick,” he said.

Although his office is not handing oversight of the recent safety lapses in Defense Department laboratories, Monroe said part of his role is to represent the CDC in discussions with other federal agencies on matters of lab safety.

Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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