Citing an anthrax scare and a recurring problem with safety, U.S. officials on Friday shut down two federal research labs and stopped shipping highly dangerous germs to other labs.
One of the closed facilities was involved in an incident last month that could have accidentally exposed workers in three labs to anthrax. The second had a previously undisclosed problem earlier this year that involved bird flu.
The safety issues were addressed on Friday by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Tom Frieden. He also released a report that detailed three other incidents in the past decade in which mistakes or other problems caused potentially dangerous germs to be released.
Friedan said an internal probe found multiple failures by individual scientists and a lack of agency-wide safety policies led to the potential exposure of more than 80 lab workers to live anthrax at a CDC campus in Atlanta last month. Researchers in a high-security lab sent samples of what they thought were inactivated bacteria to colleagues in a lower-security lab with fewer protections.
Investigators also discovered a previously unreported incident: Workers at a high-security CDC lab sent samples containing a dangerous strain of bird flu to counterparts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in March. Mishandling avian flu could have far graver consequences than anthrax, though no one was infected in either case.
The two incidents represent the latest in a series of breaches at the CDC in the last decade that is drawing fresh scrutiny from Congress and questions about the agency's ability to oversee potentially dangerous research. The CDC said its findings provide a "wake-up call" to overhaul the protocols and oversight governing experiments with deadly pathogens.
Biosecurity has focused on "how to keep bad guys out of the lab," said Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota and a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which advises the federal government.
"One of the critical issues we need to focus on is the good guys who just forget to do it safely."
Dr. Frieden called the bird flu incident "the most distressing," in part because it occurred six weeks ago but was not reported to senior agency leadership.
"I learned about it less than 48 hours ago," he told reporters in a teleconference, adding that the events likely "have people questioning government."
He also pointed to the discovery this month of six vials of smallpox in an unused room at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington. Dated 1954, two of the vials contained live virus.
"We need to look at our culture of safety throughout all of our laboratories," Frieden said. The CDC's anthrax report does not name any of the responsible individuals.
"These repeated safety failures raise grave concerns about the CDC's ability to ensure strict procedures, protocols and training are followed," said Representative Tim Murphy, chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that has called Frieden to testify on Wednesday.
Al Jazeera and wire services