Committee Memo Chronicles Ziploc Bags and Unlocked Refrigerators Among Latest Revelations Regarding Recent Anthrax Incident at CDC

July 14, 2014

WASHINGTON, DC – The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), this week will continue its investigation of recent incidents involving the mishandling of anthrax and other dangerous agents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Committee leaders last week sent letters to CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden and HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson requesting documents regarding biosafety issues and the CDC laboratories. The background memo for this week’s hearing highlights some of the committee’s findings and notes, “The purpose of the hearing is to analyze what went wrong; why the anthrax incident occurred, whether the recent incidents over the last week raise systemic concerns, and what can be done about it, including possible legislative action.”

“Each layer we peel back in this investigation seems to reveal a new instance of carelessness in the CDC’s management of dangerous pathogens,” commented Murphy. “This week’s hearing is an opportunity for the agency to answer tough questions about the lessons it can learn from these incidents, the scope of the problems, and the steps it plans to take to protect the public and workers from grave biosafety hazards.”

Following are key points from the background memo:

  • An inspection of the recent anthrax incident by the United States Department of Agriculture – Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) raises more concerns about the scope of the incident as reported by CDC. The APHIS report found:
    • There were missing anthrax containers that had to be tracked down by inspectors;
    • Select agent materials were transferred using Ziploc bags which did not meet the “durable” requirement for secondary containment;
    • Anthrax was stored in unlocked refrigerators in an unregistered hallway, and workers freely passed through the area at the time of inspection;
    • The CDC Occupational Health Clinic was not prepared to adequately respond to the exposure of a large number of individuals and staff left the clinic without knowing the extent of their risk of exposure;
    • Some staff were not examined for five days following notification;
    • Disinfectant used for decontamination of vials and bags was expired, and researchers could not remember if they used expired bleach to decontaminate areas after the potential release was identified.
  • The 2006 incidents relating to CDC shipments of anthrax and botulinum all involved outside labs; 2 out of 3 of these labs were not registered under the federal select agent program. 
  • In March 2014, an APHIS inspection expressed concerns about CDC’s bioterrorism lab, including: inventory records for select agents, such as botulinum and anthrax, were not accurate or complete; there was not a sufficient decontamination plan in the event of a gross contamination; and the pass-through autoclave was not operational at the time.
  • A 2011 report from the HHS OIG on labs at the NIH, FDA, and CDC found weaknesses in inventory records and expressed concerns about the lack of biosafety and security training for workers with access to these labs.
  • That report also found that CDC did not monitor and enforce effectively certain federal select agent regulations at the laboratories, “which may have put public health and safety at increased risk.” 

Read the complete background memo for Wednesday’s hearing online here

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