CDC official resigns after anthrax scare

The official in charge of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lab where there was an anthrax scare last month has resigned.

Michael Farrell, director of the CDC’s Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory in Atlanta since 2009, stepped down Tuesday after the agency took heavy criticism for a number of safety lapses.

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Last month the CDC reported scientists had moved live anthrax from a high-level biosafety lab to a different lab without first killing the deadly bacteria. The agency feared more than 80 workers may have been infected, but so far there have not been any reported casualties.

Farrell had been reassigned after the incident last month, and CDC Director Thomas Frieden said he'd take appropriate action against those who were found responsible for the safety breach.

CDC spokesman Thomas Skinner said no one else has resigned in connection to the anthrax scare and the agency does not have a replacement for Farrell yet.

The incident led the agency to shut down the labs in question, and Frieden issued a moratorium on transferring deadly pathogens without his explicit approval.

Speaking at congressional hearing last week, Frieden warned some CDC scientists may 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."

And at the National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday, Frieden said the CDC is trying to change a cultural problem where safety lapses are allowed to occur while also punishing “culprits” responsible for not treating safety more seriously.
 
“On the one hand, you have to ensure that you have policies and procedures and a culture that promotes safety continuously ... and does everything to analyze what are ways to reduce that risk,” Frieden said. “At the same time, you look at individual incidents and if there is negligence, if there is a failure to report them, you have to take appropriate action.”

Since the incident, other safety lapses involving mishandling of anthrax and avian flu have been reported by the CDC, which is undergoing an internal review of its laboratory safety procedures.