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Safety Concerns Prompt US to Close Labs, Suspend Shipping of Biological Materials

  • Jessica Berman

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shutting down two labs that handle highly infectious pathogens and imposing an immediate moratorium on shipments of all biological materials from high-level security laboratories until safety problems are addressed.

The actions follow several troubling lapses in laboratory safety.

Last month, more than 80 CDC scientists at three labs were potentially exposed to live anthrax. Then, this week, it was announced that six, long-forgotten vials of live smallpox virus were found in a storeroom at a US Food and Drug Administration laboratory. Finally, CDC officials announced the discovery this week that a CDC laboratory accidentally contaminated low-risk bird flu samples with a highly pathogenic strain of the H5N1 avian flu and shipped it to a government lab.

CDC Director Tom Frieden said he will appoint a new director of laboratory safety. Any workers who knowingly violate procedures or fail to report breaches will be disciplined.

Frieden released a report Friday reviewing the unintentional mishandling of anthrax. The report concludes it was extremely unlikely - but not impossible - that staff members at the CDC’s laboratories were exposed to the lethal bacterium.

However, Frieden stresses that no one, either in the public or laboratories, was sickened in the incidents. But he said he was “astonished” that such lapses could have happened in the U.S., which is entrusted with running laboratories that handle some of the deadliest biologic agents in the world.

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