Government health officials are cracking down on safety at the nation’s highest-level biosecurity labs after a disturbing series of lapses, including an anthrax scare, discovery of lost vials containing live smallpox — and a new report of the accidental shipment of highly pathogenic bird flu.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Friday announced an immediate moratorium on all shipments of biological materials from CDC biosecurity level 3 and level 4 labs until problems are addressed.
Taken together, the breaches raise “serious and troubling questions” about the nation’s culture of laboratory safety, he said. Two labs have been shut; it’s not clear how many others affected.
“Fundamentally, what they revealed was totally unacceptable behavior,” Frieden said. “These events should never have happened.”
Frieden also said he would appoint a single director of laboratory safety, Dr. Michael Bell, and discipline any lab workers who knowingly violated procedures or who failed to report breaches. Bell has been associate director for infection control in the CDC’s division of health care quality.
The moves follow lapses in laboratory protocol revealed the past month, including exposure of more than 80 CDC scientists to live anthrax, discovery of lost vials containing what’s been determined to be live smallpox at a Food and Drug Administration laboratory — and a discovery, just this week, that a CDC laboratory accidentally contaminated low-risk bird flu samples with highly pathogenic samples of H5N1 bird flu, and sent it out to a government lab.