Too many labs, not enough safety

Yesterday, I explained why the series of disturbing safety breaches at top-notch U.S. research labs shouldn’t surprise anyone. Since 2004, the number of labs authorized to handle the world’s deadliest microbes and biohazards has more than tripled. And according to the LA Times, the Government Accountability Office expressed concern about the proliferation of these laboratories in reports dating back to 2009.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) should oversee these labs and set rigorous safety standards. But they used very little foresight, precautionary measures, or even common sense to prevent these unacceptable safety lapses over the past decade.

So it’s not surprising these lapses occurred. It’s surprising they didn’t occur sooner. (Actually, several lapses did occur earlier. But they weren’t immediately reported. And so we’re only just hearing about them now, after the fact.)

Indeed, the story seems to unfold–and get worse–day by day…

One major lapse happened at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. This building sits across the street from thousands of vulnerable patients housed at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It also sits near the middle of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. And it’s just miles–as the crow flies–from the nation’s capital.

In this supposedly “secure” location, researchers discovered six vials of smallpox in an unused cold-storage room. The vials were labeled as “variola,” the most common and severe form of smallpox. Plus, at least two vials contained the live virus, capable of actively infecting people.

As you’ll recall, the smallpox virus nearly wiped out entire civilizations for centuries. But the CDC and other world health organizations have considered it an “eradicated disease” since 1980. I remember presenting a scientific paper in 1986 on how the CDC used anthropological methods to track down and isolate the final cases on the horn of Africa.

Today, the CDC is one of only two official repositories for smallpox. In fact, prior to this incident, health authorities had said the only known smallpox samples left in the world were safely stored in secure labs at the CDC in Atlanta and in Russia. So there is real alarm about how six vials of it were left in a low-security lab on the NIH campus for decades.

What was this deadly virus doing there?

Apparently, the smallpox samples were put in this cold-storage room at some point between 1946 and 1964. Then, when the lab transferred from the FDA to the NIH in 1972, they were inadvertently left behind. The storage room also contained “forgotten” samples of dengue, influenza and Q fever. It makes you wonder how many other dangerous vials lay “forgotten” in government labs across the country.

In another incident, workers at the CDC lab in Atlanta accidently contaminated a less serious sample of the bird flu with the deadly H5N1 strain. (As you’ll recall, H5N1 is the much-feared bird flu strain that infected 650 people worldwide since 2003, killing more than half of them.)

Then, CDC workers accidently shipped the contaminated sample to a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Athens, Georgia. The USDA workers only discovered the problem after several chickens died.

The CDC now admits to a series of similar mishaps over the last decade.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, the CDC is responsible for overseeing all the labs in this country that handle biohazardous materials. Including all the university labs that caught rides on the government’s new “bioterror” gravy train. The CDC also tracks biohazards–including anthrax–anywhere on the planet. But, apparently, they can’t keep track of what gets left on their own doorstep.

Now, Congress and at least five government agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, are getting involved to deal with this mess. But the government’s alphabet soup of agencies may be more dangerous than the soup of microbes swimming on the rest of the planet. Even the lame stream media laments that these recent problems have created a crisis of faith in federal agencies. (If there had been any faith left in the first place.)

The CDC did shut down two of its own labs after these frightening mistakes. Perhaps instead of opening more, expensive, state-of-the-art bioterrorism palaces, what we really should be doing is closing even more labs.

The government handles storage of their biohazardous booty about as well as they do anything else–which is very poorly.

Do you remember the dramatic closing scenes of the movie Citizen Kane from the 1940s? Or how about the closing to the Indiana Jones movie from the 1980s, Raiders of the Lost Ark? In the final scene, the camera lingers and pans over row upon row of boxes in storage.

That’s just like our federal government, the most acquisitive, greedy entity on the entire planet . (And in the case of Indiana Jones, that scene was a depiction of our government.) Like a roach motel, you can check something in, but you can never check it out. Once the government gets its hands on anything–from “forgotten” samples of smallpox to your tax dollars–it won’t ever let go.

I’ll keep you posted on further developments to this story.


1. “A CDC safety net full of holes,” LA Times ( 7/21/2014