High-security CDC labs closed after accidents

  • Article by: DONALD G. MCNEIL , New York Times
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 7:41 PM
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As many as 75 employees of the Centers for Disease Control may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria in June.

Photo: David Goldman • AP file,

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After potentially serious back-to-back laboratory accidents, federal health officials announced Friday that they had closed the flu and anthrax laboratories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and have halted shipments of all infectious agents from the agency’s highest-security labs.

The accidents, and the CDC’s emphatic response to them, could have important consequences for other laboratories engaged in efforts to produce dangerous viruses and bacteria.

If the CDC — which the agency’s director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, called “the reference laboratory to the world” — had multiple accidents that could have killed both staff members and the public, there would be calls for stricter controls on other university, military and private laboratories that handle pathogens.

In one accident, which occurred in June, as many as 75 CDC employees may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria after potentially infectious samples were sent to laboratories unequipped to handle them.

Workers who were not wearing protective gear ended up moving and experimenting with samples of the highly infectious bacteria that were supposed to have been deactivated. All the workers were offered vaccine and antibiotics, and the agency said that no one was in danger.

In another episode, disclosed Friday, a CDC lab accidentally contaminated a relatively benign flu sample with a dangerous H5N1 bird flu strain that has infected 650 people since 2003, killing 386 of them. An Agriculture Department laboratory realized the strain was more dangerous than expected and alerted the CDC.

Frieden also announced Friday that two of six vials of smallpox recently found stored in a National Institutes of Health laboratory since 1954 contained live virus capable of infecting people.

All the samples will be destroyed as soon as the genomes of the virus in them can be sequenced. The NIH will scour its freezers and storerooms for other dangerous material, he said.

“These events revealed totally unacceptable behavior,” Frieden said. “They should never have happened. I’m upset, I’m angry, I’ve lost sleep over this, and I’m working on it until the issue is resolved.”

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