CDC’s problems must be corrected

Lapses, lack of transparency are alarming

By The Mercury

Americans are right to be alarmed at safety lapses and transparency issues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. If the professionals of the CDC cannot be trusted to keep deadly viruses secure, who can?

Several recent revelations have rocked the CDC and undermined trust in the center. In June, about 75 employees could have been exposed to anthrax when live viruses that workers were supposed to have killed were transferred from a high-security lab to lower-security labs where staff were not adequately protected. The CDC says no workers were in peril but still offered them antibiotics and a vaccine.

Last week it was learned that a relatively harmless flu sample had inadvertently been infected by the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu. If that mistake weren’t troubling enough, the contamination actually took place in late May, and Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, learned about it only last week.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation has found that disinfectants used to decontaminate vials and bags had expired and that CDC personnel weren’t sure whether they had used expired products in cleaning up after the anthrax accident.

The USDA also found flawed security measures, including the storage of anthrax in unlocked refrigerators in an unrestricted area and the transfer of germ materials between labs in Ziploc bags that did not meet containment regulations.

A CDC spokesman told the Associated Press that the agency is “scrutinizing” the report and would respond appropriately.

That’s not entirely comforting. Wednesday’s congressional committee hearing on the CDC could be more helpful, particularly if lawmakers call for an independent review of safety procedures and accidents at the CDC. Such lapses as have occurred this spring and summer — and there have been others in recent years — simply are unacceptable. So is the lack of transparency that not only leaves the public ignorant but also has left the CDC’s leadership in the dark for too long after something happens that calls for their immediate attention.

The CDC’s problems are of particular interest in Manhattan, where construction is under way for another facility that will house deadly viruses. NBAF — the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility — also should be subject to independent safety reviews and investigations into accidents. Mistakes will occur there, as they have at the CDC, if only because humans aren’t perfect.

Thus it’s wise — indeed, essential — to adapt the lessons of the CDC’s problems to enhance safety at all levels of NBAF.

We’re confident that will occur.

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