Panel steps up safety probe after fed lab scares

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are expanding their investigation of a series of apparent safety lapses involving anthrax, small pox and bird flu at federal laboratories.

Citing an “insufficient culture of safety,” the lawmakers sent letters Monday to leaders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Health and Human Services Inspector General demanding information about the scares and related protocols.

“These recent safety lapses raise a number of questions and concerns regarding how federal agencies are responding to these incidents, what actions have been taken in the past, and does Congress need to intervene,” said committee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), chairman of the panel’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

“Ziploc bags somehow become an acceptable means to handle anthrax and who knows what other deadly agents — those days are over,” they added.

The request follows the discovery of decades-old vials containing the deadly smallpox virus at the National Institutes of Health campus, the potential exposure of 75 scientists at the Centers for Disease Control to anthrax and the accidental contamination of a flu sample with a dangerous H5N1 bird flu strain at the CDC.

The scares have sparked warnings from public health advocates and were the subject of a heated hearing this month.