Earlier this month, we ran a report on the CDC anthrax blunder. As if that weren’t bad enough, there have been additional exposures since we posted that report. This time, it involved the shipment of live, highly contagious, and deadly H5N1 avian influenza samples.
As previously reported, as many as 841 scientists and staff members at a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) biolab were exposed to live anthrax in June. The live pathogen had been sent from a higher-security facility.
Biosafety protocols were apparently not followed at either of the facilities. The anthrax sample was supposed to have been inactivated prior to transfer, but due to multiple protocol breaches, it was still “live” upon arrival.
In addition to failing to properly inactivate the pathogen, samples were also found to have been transferred in Ziploc bags, and stored in unlocked storage refrigerators in an area where unauthorized personnel were free to wander by.
The director of the CDC’s Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory, Michael Farrell, was reassigned,2 from his posts, voluntarily resigned on July 22.3, 4 Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, head of the CDC, has now issued a report5that admits to sloppy work ethics at the lab.
The Old Adage Holds True: If You Fail to Plan, You’re Planning to Fail…
According to the CDC’s internal investigation, senior staff members at the receiving facility had not created a written plan for the researchers to follow when studying the deadly pathogen.
Scientists also did not review existing literature before beginning their work. What few instructions were obtained were given over the phone, and poor communication led to some of the errors. As noted by Rutgers University chemistry professor Richard H. Ebright:6
“It is ironic that the institution that sets US standards for safety and security of work with human pathogens fails to meet its own standards. It is clear that the CDC cannot be relied upon to police its own select-agent labs.”
The report also admits to two additional anthrax incidents, both of which occurred in 2006. Neither of these incidents had previously been disclosed to the public. In both instances, the CDC “accidentally” shipped live anthrax to two different labs.
A third erroneous shipment involved live botulism bacteria. It seems we can all count ourselves lucky that the CDC hasn’t killed large numbers of people yet through all these sloppy mistakes!
As noted in a recent Scientific American article,7 intentional and/or unintentional releases of deadly agents from high security laboratories have actually proven farmore deadly, not to mention far more frequent, than any organized terrorist attack using bioweapons…
For the moment, Dr. Frieden has shut down the CDC’s bioterror labs, and no shipments are allowed to leave the agency’s highest-security labs, pending a thorough review of safety protocols.
CDC Accidentally Ships Wrong Flu Virus to Poultry Researchers
Incredibly, there’s been yet another accidental release of a deadly virus since the anthrax debacle, and CDC leaders didn’t even learn about it until a month after it occurred.
Turns out CDC scientists shipped deadly H5N1 avian influenza samples to a Department of Agriculture poultry research lab.8 They were supposed to send a far more benign variety for study… The error appears to have been discovered when all of the exposed chickens died.
The Agriculture Department reported the frightful mix-up on May 23, but CDC staffers didn’t report the error to senior management at the CDC until July 7! Dr. Frieden was reportedly “stunned and appalled” upon hearing the belated news.
“The recent revelations have created a crisis of faith in the federal agency, prompting calls for an independent body to investigate such episodes in the future, as well as for sweeping changes at the agency and to a sprawling web of research labs…” the New York Times9 writes.
One can only wonder: had this accidental exposure actually resulted in some sort of mini pandemic, would this mistake ever have seen the light of day? More than likely, it would have been covered up and used as justification for additional vaccinations.
Deadly Pathogens Discovered in an Old Storage Room
The bad news doesn’t end there, I’m afraid. Several weeks ago, scientists were shocked to discover a number of old, unapproved vials of the deadly smallpox virus in a “forgotten storage room” on the National Institutes for Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Now, they’ve reportedly uncovered a total of one dozen boxes containing nearly 330 vials of an array of pathogens, including dengue and spotted fever.10 The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the responsibility of overseeing the lab.
Apparently, the vials had been sitting in that storage room for nearly 50 years! Some estimate the specimens date back to somewhere between 1946 and 1964. The smallpox vials were dated 1954. How all of these pathogens got there, and how they could possibly have been overlooked for this long, is still a mystery.
Smallpox killed hundreds of millions of people before being eradicated in 1977, and there it is—sitting in an old cold-storage room in an unapproved lab. What if a natural catastrophe had wiped out the building? What if they’d gotten stolen? Clearly, they would not have been missed! Thankfully, the vials were well-packed and intact, and no accidental exposure appears to have occurred.
Karen Midthun, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), told reporters: “The fact that these materials were not discovered until now is unacceptable. We take this matter very seriously, and we’re working to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.” Indeed, it seems several of our federal agencies have their hands full with biosafety investigations, from the USDA and CDC, to the FDA… As reported by CNN,11 the CDC has created “a high-level group of leaders who will work on lab safety issues,” and is also working on the creation of an external lab safety advisory group.
The agency also claims to have devised a rapid-response command structure, which has been lacking. How the premiere agency responsible for biosafety could be lacking a rapid-response structure in the first place is yet another mystery, if you ask me… The CDC promised to clean up its act back in 2012 when repeated safety lapses came to light.12 It didn’t happen, and we ended up with the largest accidental exposure to a bioweapon in US history. Let’s see if the agency gives the task the time and attention it deserves this time.
The Dreadful History of Biolab Errors
The sad truth is that, over the years, there have been many other deadly biolab mistakes, including but not limited to the following:
|In 1971, a former Soviet biological weapons testing facility released a deadly strain of hemorrhagic smallpox—allegedly during an open-air test. Hundreds were quarantined, 50,000 people were vaccinated, and three people died.13|
|In 1978, a University of Birmingham laboratory inadvertently released the smallpox virus, which ended up killing a British medical photographer.14|
|In 1979, there was an “accidental atmospheric release” of anthrax in Sverdlovsk, Russia,15 which killed 64 of the 94 infected individuals.16|
|During the mid-1980s, Bayer sold millions of dollars worth of an injectable blood-clotting medicine to Asian, Latin American, and some European countries, knowing it was tainted with the AIDS virus. This is yet another example of how deadly pathogens can make their way out of the lab, and into the human population.|
|In 2001, US Army biodefense scientist Bruce Ivins allegedly mailed letters containing a live research strain of anthrax from the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Shortly thereafter, he committed suicide. Five people died from the exposure.|
|In 2004, a lab in Maryland accidentally sent live anthrax to a California children’s hospital. The CDC investigated the incident and created recommendations designed to make sure something like this would never happen again, yet the near-identical chain of mistakes and protocol failures just occurred at their own facility.17|
|In 2009, Baxter accidentally sent vaccines contaminated with live and deadly avian (bird) flu to a research facility in Europe. The mistake originated in a Baxter plant operating under Bio Safety Level 3 (BSL3) status — meaning that high-level precautions are supposed to be in place to make sure an accident like this never happens. The company blamed the incident on human error, again demonstrating that, apparently, it takes just one absent-minded dingbat to circumvent the highest level biosafety system currently in existence.|
|In 2012, it was discovered that the bioterror germ lab at the CDC in Atlanta (the same building where the latest anthrax safety breach occurred) has had repeated problems with airflow systems designed to help prevent the release of infectious agents such as anthrax, dangerous strains of influenza, the SARS coronavirus, and monkeypox.
Air from a research lab in one of the Biosafety Level 3 buildings was being vented into a so-called “clean” area, where visitors are not required to wear protective gear. While no one was infected, the problems were major violations of laboratory operating standards.18, 19
|Also in 2012, a vaccine researcher at the Northern California Institute for Research died shortly after being infected with the Neisseria meningitides bacteria at work. He was working on a vaccine against the pathogen, and according to the site chief was following required precautions for working with the deadly pathogens.20|
New Biorisk Management Standards Are Clearly Needed
There’s no doubt that biosafety problems such as the ones discussed above pose a grave danger to public health. And when the gold standard of biorisk safety—the CDC—itself repeatedly fails to follow its own safety protocols, you know we’re in trouble… Even with new biorisk management standards, such as those backed by the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s questionable whether the risks associated with bioterror research labs can really be eradicated.
Pandemic viruses that could kill off large portions of the population are generally kept for vaccine development. We’re repeatedly warned that a deadly outbreak could occur at any moment, and we’re told that it’s imperative to give vaccine manufacturers the leeway needed to create new vaccines, fast.
What they never tell you, however, is that this research in and of itself poses the greatest risk for creating the outbreak in the first place! It seems quite clear that we cannot blindly accept safety assurances from our federal agencies, not even the CDC, which is in charge of biosafety. It’s also clear that we’re in dire need for independent oversight of these kinds of facilities.