The risks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention take while doing research need to be better weighed, and the agency's director admits there are many unsafe practices that must be changed.
"One of the things that we want to ensure in the strengthening of the culture of safety is that people understand that anytime there might be a problem — or there is a problem — report it, rather than try to figure it out first and then report it," Dr. Tom Frieden told National Public Radio
on Friday. "CDC scientists are rightly famous around the world for being the top in the world in their field, and that same rigor that we've been applying to finding and stopping outbreaks, that's the rigor we are now applying to improving safety at CDC."
This week, 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.
In addition, ordinary flu virus was contaminated with the deadly bird flu virus that was sent from a CDC lab, and vials of smallpox virus were found, after being forgotten in a National Institutes of Health storage room.
This week The Washington Post
reported that the Food and Drug Administration found forgotten vials of other potential bioterrorism agents that were stored alongside the smallpox samples.
The discovery, announced after Frieden appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday, included 12 boxes and 327 vials holding an array of deadly pathogens, including the virus that causes the tropical disease dengue and the bacteria that can cause spotted fever.
"The fact that these materials were not discovered until now is unacceptable," Karen Midthun, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), said. "We take this matter very seriously, and we’re working to ensure that this doesn’t happen again."
No one has fallen sick due to the lapses, but the subcommittee pressed Frieden for answers.
"A dangerous, very dangerous pattern is emerging, and there are a lot of unknowns out there," said Committee Chairman Fred Upton. "Why do these events keep happening?"
Frieden told NPR on Friday that the incidents suggest the CDC "needs to take a hard look at the risks and the benefits of the different types of research that are being done and make sure in every case that the benefits justify the potential risks."
For starters, Frieden said he has imposed a moratorium on transferring all infectious or potentially infectious materials out of the CDC's high containment labs until it's verified that protocols have been changed.
"I've closed the individual labs associated with the two incidents, and they won't reopen until we are certain that they can reopen safely," Frieden said. "I've appointed a senior scientist to be the single point of accountability, and we're going to work at every level of CDC to increase the culture of safety here."
CDC scientists will apply the same rigor to their own laboratories that they do when finding and stopping outbreaks around the world, he said.
Meanwhile, Frieden pointed out that the CDC's scientists don't regulate themselves, but instead has an agent program that's run by a separate section of the CDC and the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
"These two agencies oversee all entities that work with select agents," Frieden said. "We make unannounced site visits; we have detailed reviews. We'll look at whether these incidents suggest that we should do other things in addition to those."
Frieden said he and other CDC officials are open to establishing an independent oversight team to regulate its facilities.
"We're certainly open to anything that will improve lab safety," Frieden said. "One of the things that I will be doing this week is inviting an external advisory group that has no prior employment with CDC to look at what we are doing on lab safety and biosecurity and suggest any ways that we can improve that process."
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