The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had even more security lapses when handling anthrax bacteria than it had previously admitted, according to a congressional report released Monday.
Federal CDC workers kept dangerous anthrax bacteria in unlocked refrigerators, transferred it in Ziploc bags that didn’t meet safety requirements and even let anthrax containers go missing, according to a federal inspection.
The Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service conducted an investigation of the CDC’s procedures after the federal agency admitted recently that officials at the Atlanta campus mishandled live anthrax. Researchers at a high-security bioterror lab studying live anthrax sent what they believed to be inactivated bacteria to a low-security lab with fewer safety protections, potentially exposing over 80 scientists and lab workers to the bacteria.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee revealed the findings from the APHIS investigation on Monday. The committee will question CDC director Thomas Frieden about the multiple safety failures on Wednesday.
According to the report, the CDC was unable to handle the number of workers who could have come in contact with the live anthrax. Workers “left the clinic without knowing the extent of their risk of exposure,” according to the report, and some were not examined for five days.
Workers also may have failed to properly decontaminate vials and bags which held live anthrax after the safety breach came to light. Some of the laboratory’s disinfectant was expired, according to APHIS, and researchers didn’t know whether they’d used the expired bleach to clean the facility.
“Each layer we peel back in this investigation seems to reveal a new instance of carelessness in the CDC’s management of dangerous pathogens,” said committee chairman Rep. Tim Murphy.
The CDC admitted Friday that it also mishandled samples of a dangerous strain of avian flu in March. The agency believes that no one has been infected, but the spread of the bird flu could have dangerous consequences if any researchers do come down with the disease.
The incident was not reported to senior agency leadership, a failure which CDC chief Frieden admitted likely has “people questioning government.”
The congressional committee’s report also noted a 2011 report which warned that the CDC was already failing to enforce some select agent regulations at its labs, “which may have put public health and safety at increased risk.”