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The Mercury News: CDC drops the ball, and the anthrax

San Jose Mercury News

First Published Jul 17 2014 06:56 am • Last Updated Jul 17 2014 04:25 pm

We’re no experts on medical research. Nonetheless, we offer this humble safety tip to those who are: When conducting experiments on deadly pathogens, safety protocols must be extremely restrictive and strictly followed. Always.

It should go without saying, but amazingly, employees at the until-now-revered Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta didn’t get the memo. The nation’s pre-eminent medical research laboratory has been rocked by revelations of scientists’ sloppy handling of anthrax and an extremely dangerous strain of the deadly bird flu. (This around the time the also highly respected National Institutes of Health found a box of smallpox vials lying around a storage area. It had been there for 60 years, but still, not a good summer for health institutions.)

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Among its many functions, the CDC actually sets safety and security standards for dealing with dangerous pathogens, but its own internal investigation revealed that it has not always lived up to the standards itself. It’s pretty much a miracle that people haven’t been killed.

The CDC was first embarrassed by the news that dozens of laboratory employees at its headquarters might have been exposed to anthrax samples through improper handling of the deadly pathogen.

As Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the CDC, was preparing to release details of his investigation to the public, he learned that CDC workers had shipped a strain of the H5N1 avian influenza virus to a research lab run by the Department of Agriculture.

Frieden discovered that the incident — which was at least as dangerous as the anthrax mishap — occurred in late May, and while some employees knew about it, CDC’s top management wasn’t told until July 7.

Frieden conducted an investigation of that incident as well and last week released his report on both. It was candid and critical of senior staff members for failing to write a proper plan for the anthrax study, and it found that the agency was not prepared to respond to an employee being exposed to anthrax.

Frieden has ordered an immediate review of all protocols at the highest-security labs and plans to bring in outside experts to form an advisory group on lab safety.

Some argue that the CDC should have oversight from an agency with subpoena powers comparable to the National Transportation Safety Board. Let’s see what Frieden’s approach does first.

Frieden has taken responsibility and what appears to be appropriate action to fix the problems. A distinguished external advisory group should be sufficient to ensure that all labs are operated safely. That, and a little more common sense.

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