United States Federal Health officials broadcast on Friday that they had decided to temporarily close the anthrax and flu laboratories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia and have also stopped all shipments of infectious agents from other security labs due to potentially severe laboratory accidents. The mishaps, and how the CDC responds to them, could end up having important consequences for the numerous laboratories that keep high-risk agents and the few that, even more controversially, concentrate in making them even more hazardous for purposes of research.
In June, there were over 60 CDC employees who could have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria after possibly infectious samples were sent to several laboratories that were unfitted to handle them. Personnel were not wearing the proper protective gear yet they worked with bacteria that was thought to have been killed but might not have been. All were offered anthrax vaccines and antibiotics, and the agency stated it felt none of the employees were in danger.
In a second accident which was disclosed to the public on Friday, a CDC lab inadvertently polluted a fairly benign sample of flu with a hazardous stain of bird flu known as H5N1. It has killed nearly 400 people since 2003. Fortunately, a laboratory in the United States Agriculture Department recognized that the strain was much more treacherous than first believed and informed the CDC.
Adding to these errors it was also announced that two of the six flasks of smallpox, which had been recently discovered in a National Institutes of Health laboratory since the 1950’s, contained live virus which was able to infect individuals. The samples will be demolished as soon as the virus genomes can be sequenced. It is being reported the NIH has been ordered to search its storerooms and freezers for any other potential hazardous material. The CDC flu and anthrax labs are to stay closed until brand new techniques are enforced. For the flu lab, that should be done in time for the preparation of vaccine for the new winter’s flu season.
Researchers who are performing the most debated work, such as making pathogens more lethal or transmissible, explain that the investigations help aid in the prediction of mutations that might show up in nature so vaccines are able to be made. However other experts feel that producing such super-strains is far too dangerous because lab accidents happen way too commonly than is most often acknowledged.
At the CDC, any staff who knowledgeably fails to follow guidelines or who do not report hazardous incidents will be disciplined. There is an expert committee who will be assembled to study procedures.
Anthrax is able to kill anybody those who breathes it in, but it is not usually transmitted between humans, so if a lab worker had become infected, he or she would not have passed it on. H5N1 bird flu has taken the lives of around 60 percent of those known to have suffered from it. This was almost always after they had been in contact with poultry. Although it really does not easily spread from one individual to another, it is thought to have done so several times.
The new CDC report found several mistakes were committed during the anthrax study. One of the scientists had used a unsafe anthrax strain when a more benign one would have served just as well. The person also had not read related studies and used a chemical killing method which had not been approved. The blunder was found only by accident. The door to an autoclave which should have sterilized samples happened to be stuck, so they were left inside an incubator for a few days longer than what was normal. It was only at that time when a lab technician happened to notice that a bacterium which was thought to be dead was instead growing.
Later tests performed at the CDC and also at a Michigan Health Department lab as part of the investigation established that the chemical method would have destroyed any live, growing anthrax in the samples that were sent out, but could have possibly not killed all the spores. They are enclosed by a hard shell and can also be deadly.
Repeating: United States Federal Health officials broadcast on Friday that they had decided to temporarily close the anthrax and flu laboratories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia and have also stopped all shipments of infectious agents from other security labs due to potentially severe laboratory accidents.
By Kimberly Ruble