The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will hire a chief of laboratory safety, according to a Reuters report. Because apparently there wasn't one before; creating the position was a major recommendation of a lengthy internal investigation into mishandling of anthrax and bird flu in the agency's labs, according to a memo Reuters obtained.
The announcement comes a week after another lab mix-up — one involving Ebola. Last week, a wrong transfer of a sample containing the Ebola virus exposed at least one lab technician to the disease. The technician wore gloves and a gown, standard gear for inactivated viruses, but not all of the protective gear — like a face mask — recommended for working with the live virus. The worker was showing no symptoms as of December 29th; that person is being monitored for the standard 21 days. The CDC said Tuesday the worker's risk of being sickened by Ebola is "low, but not zero."
"this incident involves exactly the same chain of errors."The misplaced Ebola virus is similar to other screw-ups in national labs. "The incident involves exactly the same chain of errors," Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and biosafety expert at Rutgers University, told Reuters. Essentially what happens is this: a lab receives a sample that's supposed to be inactivated — but it isn't. The lab doesn't verify that the sample it received is harmless. The sample may pass through multiple labs without being re-tested to determine it's sterile. At the final destination, the people working on the sample don't know they're working with a live pathogen, and so aren't wearing the right protective gear.
It's not just Ebola, either. Our national labs seem to have a safety problem. Anthrax samples were left unguarded and unlocked, and the disinfectant used on the samples was expired; bird flu samples were contaminated by a researcher who was rushing to a meeting; and someone apparently lost track of smallpox samples in the 1950s. They were discovered at the FDA this summer.
CDC microbiologist Leslie Dauphin will be charged with lab safety until the new position is permanently filled, according to the Reuters report. Among Dauphin's tasks are expanding safety training and looking at new technology that might improve workers' safety.