CDC considers outside inspections of its bioterror labs
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering having U.S. Army scientists or another outside agency inspect its bioterror labs in the wake of a USA TODAY report this month.
The agency plans to install safety equipment to address fire code violations from December 2010 that could trap workers in an emergency, an agency spokesman said Monday.
USA TODAY reported that the agency's $214 million Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory in Atlanta has had repeated problems with airflow systems designed to prevent the release of infectious agents. The lab, also called Building 18, has a secure, high-containment block where experiments can be done on anthrax, monkeypox, dangerous strains of flu and other agents that have the potential to be used as bioterror weapons.
Monday, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee launched a bipartisan investigation and sent the CDC a letter calling for documents and e-mails relating to safety issues in the lab building to be submitted by July 6. The committee is investigating whether the CDC is complying with federal lab safety requirements.
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said the agency is considering having an outside agency examine safety and security at its lab buildings "to see if there's anything we can and should be doing to make our program even better than it already is." Possible outside agencies include the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) or the lab safety arm of Health Canada, Skinner said. Currently, the CDC inspects itself.
"I can understand how some feel that CDC overseeing itself is a conflict of interest," Skinner said. But he said the agency has a 66-year record of operating labs safely, including Building 18. He said tens of thousands of hours of scientific work have been done in Building 18 without any incidents of infectious agents being released or anybody being sickened. "We have an extraordinary track record for that building as far as safety goes," he said.
Richard Besser, former head of the CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response, raised concerns June 13 about the CDC's self-policing in an ABC News report about Building 18's airflow problems. "Laboratory safety is not an area where you want to have this much self-policing. … There is clearly an appearance of conflict of interest in having the inspection program at CDC given the number of laboratories housed within the agency," said Besser, who is the network's chief health and medical editor. Besser was unavailable for an interview.
Building 18, which opened in 2005, has had a series of safety incidents involving airflow systems since at least 2007. In February, air from inside a potentially contaminated lab briefly blew outward into a "clean" corridor where visitors weren't wearing any protective gear, which raised concern about exposure risks, according to e-mails obtained by USA TODAY. Research animals in the lab had not been infected at the time of the incident, the records say.
CDC engineers have raised written concerns about the air-containment systems since at least 2010. One concern was that negative air pressure could make it difficult for workers to escape in an emergency, requiring three times more force to open a door than the fire code allows.
Skinner said Monday that until recently, officials in the agency's safety office believed the doors weren't in violation because of their interpretation of the fire code.
The CDC is looking for ways to address the problem, including potentially installing emergency crash bars to help open the doors and further educating employees about the problem. Skinner said the issue involves about three of more than 20 doors in the high-containment lab area.
Monday's letter from the House Energy and Commerce Committee was signed by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the committee chairman; and Reps. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations; and Michael Burgess, R-Texas, vice chairman of the health subcommittee. It also is signed by Reps. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee; and Diana DeGette of Colorado, the ranking Democrat on the oversight subcommittee.
"The recent reports of potential safety lapses at one of the CDC's most sensitive biolabs are of tremendous concern," Stearns said. "It is troubling that the integrity of this $214 million facility could be in question, and we must do all that we can to ensure our scientists are safe. Even one incident is too many at Building 18."