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CDC Halts Hazardous Biomaterial Transfers

Following recent high-profile safety lapses in government labs, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has placed a moratorium on movement of biological materials from BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities.

By | July 11, 2014

CDCThe US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating yet another safety incident after the agency’s influenza lab personnel reported the inadvertent contamination of an avian influenza virus sample shipped to a US Department of Agriculture facility (USDA) with the highly pathogenic H5N1. The incident, announced today (July 11), is the third safety breach within the last month, with a CDC lab seeing the release of—and potential exposure of dozens of employees to—anthrax bacteria in mid-June, followed by the discovery of six forgotten vials of smallpox virus in US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) storage this week.

Coinciding with the release of a report reviewing the anthrax incident, the CDC has placed a moratorium on movement of biological materials from biosafety level (BSL)-3 and BSL-4 facilities. Additionally, the agency announced Michael Bell, deputy director of the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, as its new director of lab safety, reporting directly to CDC Director Thomas Frieden.

During a press briefing today, Frieden said six weeks passed before the H5N1 contamination incident was reported to agency officials. “That kind of delay is very troubling,” Frieden said, noting that no one was exposed to the flu virus, which has since been destroyed.

Tests on the samples found in FDA storage revealed that two of the six contained viable smallpox virus, Frieden said today.

“These events should never have happened,” Frieden told reporters. “Fundamentally, what they reveal is totally unacceptable behavior.”

The incidents are but a “symptom of a broader problem of laboratory safety” both within and outside the government, he continued. “There are lessons here for other laboratories.”

Among other things, Frieden said the CDC will work to reduce the number of select agents in government labs, downsize the workforce utilizing these materials, and ramp up security. The moratorium on movement of materials from BSL-3 and BSL-4 will stand “pending review by an advisory committee,” the CDC said in its release. It’s not yet clear how agency partners will be affected by this ban.

Clearly shaken by these recent events, Frieden expressed personal disappointment. “I’m just astonished that this could have happened here,” he said. As the U.S. public relies on government researchers to safeguard their health, “our workers should [also] be able to depend on us to protect their health,” he said.

“These are wake-up calls. These are events that tell us we have a problem,” Frieden continued. “We’re going to fix them.”

Clarification (July 11): This article has been updated to clarify the nature of the flu cross-contamination. Specifically, the words “the highly pathogenic” have been added to distinguish H5N1 from other types of avian flu.

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