Minor and harmless mishaps at small labs are part of the fun of science and make good yarn-swapping for old science vets. But accidents that expose people to deadly pathogens are not so funny to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has temporarily shut down its anthrax and flu labs and halted shipments of all infectious agents out of its highest-security labs, the New York Times reports.
The action came in response to three recent reports of serious mishandling of these infectious agents.
In June, it was reported that at least 62 CDC employees may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria after some samples were sent to labs that were not prepared to handle such agents. Employees there were not wearing protective gear and thought they were working with dead samples. Last Friday, CDC said one of its labs accidentally contaminated a relatively benign flu sample with a strain of H5N1 that has killed 386 people since 2003. And then there was the revelation last week that six vials of smallpox that have been lying around in an unsecured storage space at an NIH lab since 1954 still contain live virus that could infect people.
"These events revealed totally unacceptable behavior," says CDC Director Tom Frieden. "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."
Frieden says the anthrax and flu labs will stay closed until new procedures are implemented, although the flu facility will be ready in time for the next flu season.
He tells the Times that such accidents will have implications for labs beyond CDC, and added that the world will need to cut the number of labs and staff members handling dangerous agents to an absolute minimum.