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Citing an anthrax scare and a recurring problem with safety, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, July 11, 2014, shut down two research labs and stopped shipping highly dangerous germs to other labs. One of the closed facilities was involved an incident last month that could have accidentally exposed workers in three labs to anthrax. A second, previously undisclosed problem earlier this year involved deadly bird flu. (David Goldman/AP)
Citing an anthrax scare and a recurring problem with safety, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, July 11, 2014, shut down two research labs and stopped shipping highly dangerous germs to other labs. One of the closed facilities was involved an incident last month that could have accidentally exposed workers in three labs to anthrax. A second, previously undisclosed problem earlier this year involved deadly bird flu. (David Goldman/AP)

Centers for Disease Control shuts flu and anthrax labs Add to ...

After back-to-back potentially serious laboratory accidents, U.S. health officials announced Friday that they had closed the flu and anthrax laboratories of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and have halted shipments of all infectious agents from the agency’s highest-security labs.

The accidents, and the CDC’s emphatic response to them, could have important implications for other labs around the world engaged in research into dangerous viruses and bacteria.

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If the CDC – which the agency’s director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, called “the reference laboratory to the world” – had multiple accidents that could have, in theory, killed not just lab staff but even people in the wider public, there will undoubtedly be calls for more stringent controls on other university, military and private labs handling dangerous pathogens.

One of the accidents, in which as many as 75 CDC employees were potentially exposed to live anthrax, was revealed last month. The second, disclosed Friday, related to the cross-contamination of a flu sample with a dangerous H5N1 bird flu strain.

In addition to those two accidents, Dr. Frieden also announced Friday that two of six vials of smallpox recently found stored in a National Institutes of Health laboratory since 1954 contained live virus capable of infecting people.

The samples will be destroyed as soon as the genomes of the virus in them can be sequenced. The NIH will scour its freezers and labs for other samples, he said.

“These events revealed totally unacceptable behaviour,” Dr. Frieden said. “They should never have happened. I’m upset, I’m angry, I’ve lost sleep over this, and I’m working on it until the issue is resolved.”

Dr. Frieden suggested the potential implications of these accidents himself, saying that the world needed to reduce the number of laboratories handling dangerous agents, reduce the total amounts of such agents circulating and reduce the number of lab staff members who have access to them.

At the CDC, laboratory workers who knowingly failed to follow lab procedures or failed to report incidents will be disciplined, he said. A committee of experts will be convened to revise CDC laboratory procedures.

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