World / Science & Health

Bungling of virus samples prompts hiring of CDC safety chief

Bloomberg

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will hire a laboratory safety supervisor after an Ebola virus sample was mishandled last week, the third reported safety lapse with potentially dangerous pathogens at the agency’s labs in the past year.

The new position, posted nationally in November before the Ebola incident, is “under recruitment,” Barbara Reynolds, a CDC spokeswoman, said in an email. The safety chief will be responsible for identifying problems, creating plans to solve them and holding CDC labs “accountable for follow-up,” she said.

Scientists discovered Dec. 23 that a technician in one of the agency’s labs was exposed to what may have been live Ebola virus. In March, the CDC inadvertently shipped a deadly strain of avian flu to a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory, and in June more than 80 CDC workers were potentially exposed to anthrax after a sample of the bacteria was mishandled, sparking congressional scrutiny of the agency and its director, Thomas Frieden, who pledged to improve safety measures.

“CDC has made many improvements in laboratory safety, and continues to do so,” Reynolds said in her email. The agency announced in July it would create a single point of accountability for safety in the lab.

Reuters earlier Wednesday reported the CDC’s plan to appoint a lab safety chief.

In the Ebola incident, a plate with material from an experiment involving the virus was sent from a high-security biosafety laboratory to a less-secure lab at the agency’s Atlanta campus, the CDC said in a Dec. 24 statement. Live Ebola virus requires the highest level of security with special equipment and handling, according to the agency’s rules.

A lab technician who processed the material was the only person believed to be exposed to the virus, the CDC said. The person has no symptoms and will be monitored for 21 days, the maximum incubation period for the virus. Fewer than a dozen people who entered the second, lower-security lab have been contacted “to make them aware” of the mishap, Reynolds said last week.

There have been more than 20,200 reported cases of Ebola this year, mostly in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, with 7,905 deaths, the World Health Organization said Thursday. There is no cure for the disease, spread through direct contact with body fluids.

Four people were diagnosed with the disease in the U.S. last year, according to the CDC, and all but one recovered after intensive care in hospitals.

Other steps the CDC is taking to improve safety in its labs include requiring scientists to use “validated methods” to inactivate dangerous pathogens and to verify the sterility of any materials shipped out of CDC labs, Reynolds said.

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