Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, holds up a Ziploc bag as an example of how pathogenic agents were handled at the Centers for Disease Control. / H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The director of one of the world's most prestigious public health agencies went before Congress on Wednesday to try to explain laboratory blunders that included his scientists mishandling live anthrax and unknowingly contaminating other specimens with a dangerous strain of bird flu.
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., chairman of an oversight committee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said lab safety issues appear to be systemic at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Murphy, citing numerous reports issued by government watchdogs over the years, called the most recent incident "sloppy" and "inexcusable."
Tom Frieden, director of the Atlanta.-based agency, testified about serious safety lapses in recent weeks. The anthrax incident "was completely unacceptable. It should never have happened," he said.
"With the recent incidents, we recognize a pattern at CDC where we need to greatly improve the culture of safety," Frieden said. "What we're seeing is a pattern that we missed, and the pattern is an insufficient culture of safety."
Frieden told the committee he is personally overseeing corrective actions to change that culture. He said the agency already has taken steps, including issuing a moratorium on the transfer of biological specimens from all of the agency's highest-level biosafety labs, the closure of two labs involved in recent high-profile mistakes, and the appointment of a senior scientist to be the single point of responsibility for lab safety going forward.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., expressed concern that only now is Frieden saying that CDC has been given a wake-up call. There have been a multitude of warnings and recommendations over the years, she said. And Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said many of Frieden's actions sounded similar to fixes the agency said it made two years ago, after the committee investigated earlier safety issues.
"Why should we believe this time things will be different?" Upton asked.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., told Frieden the committee's pointed questions to him show "there is complete bipartisan concern about what happened."
Nancy Kingsbury, a managing director at the Government Accountability Office, told the committee her organization has issued several reports over the years identifying issues with the nation's overall approach to research on dangerous germs that could be used as bioterror agents. The major themes of the reports, she testified, involved an overall lack of a national strategy addressing the increasing number of labs and issues with oversight of biosafety.
Kingsbury said there needs to be a broader government perspective brought to how many labs really need to be working with these dangerous germs and toxins, for what purpose and whether a better framework for oversight is needed.
Richard Ebright, a biosafety expert from Rutgers university, testified that the most important steps Congress can take is to reduce the number of government, university and private labs conducting research on select agents to a small fraction of those currently doing the work. Perhaps just 50 labs, he said. There also needs to be a single, independent agency in charge of regulating the labs and their work. Unlike CDC and USDA, the regulatory agency should not perform and fund the same kind of work it is in charge of regulating, Ebright said.
The committee also heard from Jere Dick, a top official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The USDA and CDC jointly run the Federal Select Agent Program, which oversees and inspects more than 300 entities that operate labs doing research on germs and toxins that have the potential to be used as bioweapons.
The CDC focuses its oversight on germs that primarily affect human health, and USDA focuses on germs that affect agriculture. Since 2012, after reporting by USA TODAY raised concern about the CDC policing its own bioterror labs, the USDA has inspected CDC's labs 11 times, Dick said.
The USDA's most recent inspection occurred after the CDC discovered in June that its researchers had used an unapproved protocol to deactivate anthrax spores, potentially exposing dozens of other employees to live anthrax after the specimens were transferred to other agency labs. The CDC shut down the lab involved in the incident, and the USDA halted all work with select agents and toxins, Dick testified.
Problems identified by USDA's inspectors included an inadequate initial response to the anthrax incident that included failing to fully secure and disinfect exposed lab areas and equipment. Some of the disinfectants used by the CDC turned out to be expired, and employees lacked appropriate training to disinfect areas or to know what to do in the event of exposure, they found. USDA also found "no clear management oversight of the incident within the various laboratories that were impacted."
While investigating the anthrax missteps, the CDC learned of another glaring mistake involving a different set of scientists who had cross-contaminated a benign strain of bird flu with a deadly strain, then shipped the specimens to a USDA lab that later discovered the mistake when their research birds died.
In addition to the mistakes at the CDC, forgotten vials of deadly smallpox virus were discovered this month in an unauthorized cold storage area at the National Institutes of Health. There have been other issues:
â?¢ In 2013, USA TODAY was first to reveal an initial series of "restricted" Department of Health and Human Services inspector general reports written in 2008, 2009 and 2010, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, that cited CDC's labs for failing to properly secure potential bioterror agents and not training employees who work with them.
â?¢ In 2012, USA TODAY obtained internal CDC e-mails and other records showing a $214 million bioterror germ lab complex at the agency's Atlanta headquarters has had repeated problems with airflow systems designed to help prevent the release of infectious diseases. The agency even used duct tape during 2007 and 2008 to seal a containment door of a lab where Q Fever research had been done.
â?¢ On Tuesday, USA TODAY reported on additional "restricted" inspector general audits, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, that show violations at a half-dozen laboratories run by federal health agencies, 11 labs run by universities and eight more operated by state, local or private entities.
Follow USA TODAY investigative reporter Alison Young on Twitter: @alisonannyoung
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Read the original story: CDC chief: Anthrax gaffe 'should never have happened'