House panel calls out CDC on safety responses

House lawmakers on Wednesday told Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that his agency needs to step up its response to safety breaches after recent scares involving anthrax and avian flu.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, noted at an oversight subcommittee hearing that the CDC's 2012 response to problems at Atlanta labs also included improved staff training, reviewing safety measures and assigning a single official to oversee lab safety.

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“These measures sound very similar to the corrective actions Dr. Frieden outlined last Friday to address the current lab crisis," Upton said. “Why should we believe this time that things will be different?”

Upton’s sentiments were echoed by subcommittee ranking member Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

“We have had multiple hearings on these problems over the years. In 2006 and 2007, we had problems at the CDC facility in Fort Collins,” she said. “These issues are not resolving themselves.”

Frieden said in the past the CDC has responded to safety breaches by trying to fix the problems as they emerged, but it failed to recognize a pattern within the agency over its attitude regarding safety.

“In hindsight we realized a pattern,” he said. “But with anything, recognition is just the first step.”

Frieden said the agency is now implementing measures to improve its culture of safety by updating protocols and encouraging workers who see breaches to come forward.

As the agency tries to change its culture of safety in the coming months, he noted there may be a rise in the number of safety breaches reported by the agency.

“If we do discover more problems in coming months it will be due to the fact [the agency’s efforts are] working,” Frieden said.

When asked why there was such a culture at the CDC, considering its objective is to prevent outbreaks of dangerous diseases, Frieden implied it may be because its scientists have become too comfortable working with dangerous pathogens.

“Scientists are so used to risk,” Frieden said. “Sometimes when you work with pathogens that are scary, you can get inured to those pathogens.”

DeGette said she appreciated the CDC’s efforts to change its culture but noted: “We can do a lot, but we can’t legislate a culture change.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers also questioned whether there needs to be a single agency that oversees lab safety at all federal research facilities and whether there are too many CDC labs around the country handling dangerous pathogens.