CDC Scores Poorly on Biosafety

In the wake of numerous safety breaches at the federal agency, a new report finds US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention oversight “inconsistent and insufficient at multiple levels.”

Mar 25, 2015
Jef Akst

WIKIMEDIA“Safety is not integrated into strategic planning and is not currently part of the CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] culture, enterprise-wide.” This is the conclusion of a new report evaluating the federal agency’s internal protocols.

The last nine months have been a public relations nightmare for the agency. In two separate incidents last summer, samples of live Bacillus anthracis were accidentally shipped to labs ill-equipped to handle the pathogen, and the CDC’s influenza lab mistakenly sent samples of the highly pathogenic H5N1 to a Department of Agriculture facility (instead of benign avian influenza virus). Then, in late December, another incorrect transfer of samples risked exposing a lab technician to Ebola.

Following these safety breaches, the CDC announced that it would hire a lab safety chief to oversee the handling of such dangerous pathogens, and brought an external work group of 11 biosafety and laboratory science experts in to assess its safety protocols. The group’s report—dated January 13 but just posted on the CDC’s website just recently, according to Time—describes the CDC’s commitment to safety as “inconsistent and insufficient at multiple levels.” And according to USA Today, this assessment was done in August and September last year, so does not take into consideration the latest Ebola incident.

In addition to inadequate lab-safety training, the report notes that CDC workers are often afraid to report possible exposures to hazardous material because of the risk of negative repercussions. Moreover, CDC staffers describe the agency’s Environment, Safety, and Health Compliance Office (ESHCO) as having “inadequate expertise” in lab safety.

The report recommends more than a dozen ways to improve the current situation, and the agency has issued a statement saying that it agrees with the recommendations and is working to implement them. In addition to the new safety chief position, which the agency is still working to fill, the CDC’s 2016 budget request includes a $20 million increase that will be devoted to improving lab safety, USA Today reported. “They clearly have more work to do, and our oversight of this problem will continue,” US Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO), the ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, told USA Today.