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US health chief admits 'pattern' of safety failures

AFP

Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee - Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on July 16, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DCCenter for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee - Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on July 16, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC

Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee - Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on July 16, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DCCenter for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee - Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on July 16, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC

The chief of the US government's top public health agency on Wednesday admitted to a pattern of safety errors after dangerous mixups in the handling of influenza and anthrax.

"I think we missed a critical pattern," said Tom Frieden, who leads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during two hours of questioning from the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

"The pattern is an insufficient culture of safety."

Last week, the CDC admitted to five incidents over the past decade -- two of them in recent months -- in which workers shipped anthrax, flu, botulism and a bacteria known as brucella to other labs without following proper de-activation and safety procedures.

No one was believed to have been hurt by the mishaps, but they exposed a major lapse of protocol within the CDC, which is viewed globally as a leading scientific and health agency.

The discoveries included the mistaken contamination of a mild flu strain with a dangerous H5N1 bird flu that was shipped to a US Department of Agriculture poultry lab. The incident happened six weeks before it was made known to CDC leadership.

Other problems included the potential exposure of dozens of workers at the CDC's Atlanta headquarters to anthrax in early June, when samples were not properly handled and deactivated before shipment.

The CDC issued a report Friday that detailed three other lab mistakes -- two in 2006 involving live anthrax and botulism, and one in 2009 involving brucella, a strain of bacteria that can cause the infectious disease Brucellosis.

The discovery earlier this month of six forgotten vials of smallpox at a separate US government lab at the National Institutes of Health also raised alarm over the potential for the release of dangerous biological agents that could be used as weapons of terror.

- Anthrax in food storage bags -

Since then, a separate investigation by the USDA has revealed more problems at the CDC, according to a memo about the report released by lawmakers earlier this week.

The probe found there were missing containers of anthrax that had to be tracked down by inspectors, that some materials were transported using only food storage bags, and that anthrax was stored in unlocked refrigerators in a hallway where workers passed through freely.

"What in heaven's name would go through the minds of some scientists, thinking a 'Ziploc' bag is enough to protect someone from anthrax?" asked Tim Murphy, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania and the chair of the House subcommittee that hosted the hearing.

Frieden said anyone who handled anthrax that way would have done so because he or she believed it had been inactivated, and he promised to be directly involved in the investigation and the implementation of safety changes.

"While we have scientists who are the best in the world at what they do, they have not always applied that same rigor that they do to their scientific experiments, to improving safety," said Frieden.

The CDC has shut down two labs and issued a moratorium on the shipment of dangerous agents from its facilities until a thorough review can be completed.

Frieden said he has appointed a single point person to oversee safety and was working to convene an internal review board as well as an external advisory group to offer ways to prevent such dangerous incidents in the future.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Florida, said there have been at least 14 separate reports, letters and lab investigations from various US government branches documenting safety lapses and lack of oversight at CDC high containment labs over the last decade.

"It appears that CDC has not heeded those reports," Castor said.

"It's troubling. I mean, this has gone on for years now."

Date created : 2014-07-16