Skip to main content

CDC labs repeatedly violated bioterror pathogen safety guidelines

CDC labs repeatedly violated bioterror pathogen safety guidelines

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

David McNew/Getty Images

A lab operated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was among those that had their permits suspended for mishandling bioterror pathogens like anthrax and Ebola over the past few years, USA Today reported yesterday, after it won a Freedom of Information Act appeal confirming the information. The CDC's labs also faced secret sanctions on six different occasions due to dangerous or repeated safety violations in how they handled the dangerous viruses, bacteria, and toxins they worked with.

Along with the Department of Agriculture, the CDC runs the Federal Select Agent Program, the body that chooses and monitors the labs that are allowed to work with so-called "select agents" — diseases that could be used in bioterrorism attacks. If the university, private, and government labs included in the program are found to be violating safety guidelines, they are referred to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

One lab's license was suspended from 2007 to 2010

The CDC lab suspended from the program is one of only five labs to have their licenses revoked since 2003. USA Today cites a letter that shows the facility was first removed from the Federal Select Agent Program in 2007, due to errors in the transfer of pathogens, before being reinstated in 2010. Passages of the letter are heavily redacted, but the CDC said the suspension was related to an individual lead scientist and research on Japanese encephalitis, a deadly virus that is no longer considered a select agent by the US government.

Last year, USA Today reported that more than 100 labs in the US were referred for enforcement actions from the Federal Select Agent Program, but until now, the CDC had previously refused to confirm that any of its own labs were among that number. After USA Today won its FOI request appeal, the CDC disclosed that its labs were referred six times for violations since 2003, but said that "none of these violations resulted in a risk to the public or illness in laboratory workers."

The CDC appointed a safety chief in 2015 after a series of slip-ups

Three of the referrals involved the labs sending "improperly killed" pathogens to other labs not approved to receive them, two were for storing bioterror diseases in unregistered areas inside CDC facilities, and one was for "inventory and oversight concerns." Of the cases, five were closed after the CDC "demonstrated enhanced procedures to prevent future occurrence," but another remains open. The Centers refused to confirm which case it was that is yet to be closed.

The news that the CDC itself repeatedly violated its own safety protocols in working with lethal pathogens comes two years after the government body made a series of highly publicized slip-ups at its labs. In July 2014, it temporarily closed a series of facilities after a bird flu sample was cross-contaminated and scientists were exposed to anthrax. Five months later, researchers at another lab were involved in an Ebola scare after a sample was inadvertently transferred to a facility that didn't know it was receiving the deadly virus. The mix-ups caused the CDC to hire a dedicated safety chief for the first time.