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Lawmakers jump on the CDC pathogen mishandling bandwagon

Lab worker
Lab worker
Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

When government budgets get the meat-axe, staff are cut, and morale is low, common sense would tell any agency director to ramp up the oversight and look for mistakes. According to a July 16 Bloomberg report, lawmakers are now jumping on the CDC's pathogen mishandling bandwagon. They are asking the Director of the CDC to explain how such extensive mishandling could have been a "surprise," despite several alarming inspection findings.

The U.S. government labs that handle dangerous and infectious pathogen inventories did not respond to existing oversight that would ensure proper procedure. Recently, it has come to light that there is a mountain of findings that dangerous pathogens were mishandled by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) labs.

One audit found that live Anthrax was being stored in unlocked refrigerators and transferred in basic plastic bags. Even entry-level lab workers had to know something was wrong with such activity.

A July 11 BBC News report indicated that in May, a weaker strain of avian flu virus had been contaminated by a much more pathogenic version. That version was subsequently sent to an agriculture department laboratory.

The pivotal event happened when 80 lab workers were exposed to live Anthrax between June 5 and June 13. In that case, a worker transferred the pathogen to a lower level lab. The worker failed to ensure that the pathogen was sterile.

There has been much more. Since 2012, inspectors have been finding such errors as hood vents blowing air the wrong way, workers using torn gloves, and dozens more alarming behaviors and situations.

Several actions have been taken, including removing the director of the CDC's highest security lab. Pathogen transfers have been suspended. The director of the agency's Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology laboratory has been reassigned. One suggestion is to end the self-regulating powers of the CDC by creating an independent agency. That agency would regulate all research involving dangerous pathogens.

This is a problem that needed a fix long ago. Since 2001, the number of U.S. labs handling dangerous and "bioweapons" levels of pathogens ballooned to over 1,000. Over 11,000 people are now authorized to work with dangerous pathogens.

While House and Senate politicians pry into the mistakes at the CDC, the same need to pry into the effect of budget cuts as both a causative and corrective factor.