By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday faulted a "dangerous pattern" of safety lapses at government laboratories handling deadly pathogens such as anthrax and avian flu, calling for an overhaul of controls at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Members of a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee cited new information on breaches previously unreported by CDC, which is under scrutiny for the potential exposure of more than 80 lab workers to live anthrax bacteria in June. No one has fallen sick due to the lapses.
The criticism, equally shared by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, was directed at CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden at a hearing. The incidents at the CDC's Atlanta campus have sparked fresh concerns over the lack of independent oversight of potentially dangerous research nationwide, even as the number of labs doing such work has surged in recent years.
Frieden was pressed for answers on why the government's most respected laboratories were not prepared to report or prevent dozens of breaches identified by federal investigators, and whether its staff recognized the huge risk to the public if dangerous microbes were to escape its labs.
"A dangerous, very dangerous pattern is emerging and there are a lot of unknowns out there," Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said at the hearing. "Why do these events keep happening?"
Frieden replied that the agency was instituting sweeping measures to improve internal controls on such research, which is aimed at everything from developing vaccines to prevent disease outbreaks to refining the response to bioterror attacks.
The CDC has already announced the closure of two labs responsible for the release of pathogens and suspended any sample transfers from all of its high-security labs until their safety protocols are reviewed. A CDC scientist, Dr. Mike Bell, has been appointed to head its laboratory safety effort.
"While we have scientists who are the best in the world at what they do, they have not always applied that same rigor to safety," Frieden said. "In hindsight, we realize we missed a crucial pattern: a pattern of incidents that reflect the need to improve the culture of safety at CDC."
Frieden said he was unaware of additional violations of safety and security procedures, but that additional examples could come to light as the agency improves internal communications.
A LOADED GUN
In the case of the anthrax incident, Frieden reiterated that workers at a high-security CDC lab believed they had inactivated the bacteria before transferring samples to lower-security labs, where workers use less protective gear.
"Dr. Frieden, this is like saying 'I didn't know the gun was loaded, but somebody got shot,'" said Tim Murphy, chair of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. "But you should always assume it is. For someone to say, 'Well, I didn't think the anthrax was live,' is unacceptable."
The lawmakers pressed Frieden and another witness, Nancy Kingsbury of the Government Accountability Office, on how many labs working with dangerous pathogens the nation needs, and why there is no single agency that makes that determination.
Kingsbury stressed the lack of a framework to oversee such research, and said setting national standards would require Congress to act. Lawmakers also released new disclosures about CDC lapses ahead of the hearing.
Federal investigators found dozens of safety and security problems at CDC labs handling dangerous pathogens in the 18 months prior to the release in June of live anthrax to a lab not equipped to work with it, according to a memo by Democratic committee members released on Wednesday.
The investigators, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found equipment failures, an inability to document staff training and missing signatures on required biosafety plans.
Other failures included unauthorized access to labs and improperly documenting entries and exits, posing risks to biosecurity, or the theft of potentially lethal microbes.
The findings stem from six inspections at the CDC's Atlanta campus between January 2013 and March 2014.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Begley in New York and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Chizu Nomiyama, Matthew Lewis and Dan Grebler)