Following accidents, CDC shuts down anthrax, flu labs

Dr. William Schaffner, the head of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University’s medical school, told the Times that it would be best if all American labs shipping all hazardous agents stop doing so until they have reviewed their safety procedures. He said that although there is no obvious way to force them to do that, the federal grants that most labs depend on “could be the stick.”

Dr. Tom Frieden, head of CDC, said the accidents in his agency had global implications. He said the number of labs around the world handling dangerous agents should be reduce to absolute minimum, as should the number of staff members involved and the number of agents circulating.

The Times notes that many scientists argue that even more dangerous is the efforts in a small number of research labs to make pathogens more lethal or more transmissible for the purpose of predicting mutations which might arise in nature so that vaccines and treatments can be created. The critics argue that creating superstrains is unacceptably dangerous because lab accidents are more common than is often acknowledged (see, for example, Marc Lipsitch “Anthrax? That’s Not the Real Worry, New York Times, 29 June 2014).

The revelations of agent mishandling at the CDC, these critics say, prove the need for a moratorium of such “gain of function” research.

“This has been a nonstop series of bombshells, and this news about contamination with H5N1 is just incredible,” Peter Hale, founder of the Foundation for Vaccine Research, which lobbies for more funding for vaccines but opposes “gain of function” research, told the Times. “You can have all the safety procedures in the world, but you can’t provide for human error.”

The argument about human error is proved by the CDC’s own report about the 5 June anthrax accident. The report found several errors: A scientist used a dangerous anthrax strain when a safer one would have sufficed, had not read relevant studies, and used an unapproved chemical killing method.

Moreover, the anthrax error was discovered by accident. The door to an autoclave which would have sterilized samples taken for safety tests was stuck, so the samples were left in an incubator for days longer would otherwise be the case. Only after a few days did a lab technician notice that bacteria believed to be dead were growing.

In addition, subsequent tests confirmed that the chemical method would have killed any live, growing anthrax in the samples which were sent out, but might not have killed all spores, which are surrounded by a hard shell and can also be lethal.

Dr. Frieden admitted that the human factor is key. Although anthrax terrifies laymen, “when you work with it day in and day out, you can get a little careless,” he said last Friday. “The culture of safety needs to improve at some CDC laboratories.”