CDC discovers botched shipment with bird flu, closes down labs

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday said it has closed two laboratories and halted some shipments of dangerous disease samples after discovering new safety breaches, including one that involved the dangerous avian flu.

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The CDC, which is already under fire for safety mishaps involving live anthrax, said samples that were sent in March to the Department of Agriculture for research were contaminated with the highly infections virus H5N1.

The flu samples from the Roybal Campus in Atlanta were destroyed as soon as the CDC realized the mistake. CDC Director Thomas Frieden said he didn’t learn about the incident until this week.

“I’m upset, I’m angry, I’ve lost sleep over it,” Frieden said.

The revelation came in a new report where the CDC outlined the findings of a separate investigation into the mishandling of anthrax last month in Atlanta.

The agency reported last month that up to 80 workers at Atlanta labs might have been infected with the deadly anthrax bacteria after live samples were mistakenly moved to a lab with lower biosecurity safety precautions.

The CDC report says no staff members had become ill from the anthrax exposure as of July 10.

In response to the investigation, Frieden said he has ordered an immediate moratorium on transferring any biological samples between high-level labs until officials have reviewed all their safety protocols.

The CDC chief has also ordered “appropriate actions” against any worker who knowingly violated safety rules and failed to report breaches, and has created a new position, director of laboratory safety, that will be filled by CDC official Michael Bell.

"This was a serious event that should not have happened," the CDC said of the potential anthrax exposure at the Atlanta lab.

The new safety lapse with bird flu — a virus that scientists have long feared could create a deadly pandemic — is another embarrassing misstep for the CDC and federal health officials.

The National Institutes of Health this week disclosed it found six decades-old vials of smallpox virus at a laboratory in Bethesda, Md. Small pox was eradicated decades ago, and the few remaining samples of the disease are supposed to be tightly controlled.

The Atlanta lab where the most recent anthrax scare happened has also been the site of other contamination problems in the past decade.

In 2006, the CDC found the lab had accidentally sent anthrax DNA to two outside labs. In the same year, it accidentally received live Botulism from another lab location. In 2009, the lab was also found to be sending live Brucella to outside labs to be used for vaccines.

Lawmakers are up in arms about the safety lapses and are vowing thorough investigations.

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services late Friday asking for more information about the safety breaches.

The new report “necessitates a serious and careful review of HHS’s policies, procedures, and actions with respect to the appropriate handling of select agents and other serious pathogens,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, a House subcommittee is holding a hearing next week with Frieden, and is likely to bombard the CDC chief with tough questions about the health scares.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich) called the CDC’s lapses “wholly unacceptable.”

“This latest revelation underscores the need for our investigation and the importance of next week's hearing to review the safety measures and practices at the CDC,” Upton said.

“We will seek to find out why CDC thinks its latest actions will prove more effective than past efforts, and whether congressional intervention may be necessary,” he added.

Frieden said people are right to raise questions about the CDC's procedures.

“Together I’m sure these events have many people asking and questioning government labs,” Frieden said. “They may be wondering whether we are doing what we need to do to keep our workers and our communities safe, and I think it’s fair to raise those questions.”

Still, Frieden stressed the need for the CDC to conduct research with dangerous samples, saying the work is critical to preventing outbreaks and stopping bioterrorism.

“We wish we didn’t have to do research like this but the fact is anthrax has been used as a weapon and there’s a risk is will be used as a weapon,” he said. “In fact the project that led to the potential exposure [of anthrax] was a project to figure out a quicker way to diagnose anthrax.”

— This story was last updated at 4:57 p.m.