CDC Mishaps Could Have Been Deadly
By Sydney Lupkin, ABC News
The government agency tasked with protecting the public from dangerous diseases has some explaining to do after an anthrax scare, a bird flu mix-up and an unprecedented smallpox discovery.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shuttered two of its labs as officials step back to investigate recent incidents and review overall safety procedure for handling dangerous pathogens.
None of the mistakes caused any illnesses or deaths, thankfully. But experts say the lapses could have been deadly – even if the viruses didn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Earlier this month, researchers were surprised to discover six vials of variola -- the virus that causes smallpox -- when cleaning out a cold storage room at NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.
Since smallpox is considered a bioterrorism threat, only two labs in the world have stockpiles: One at the CDC's Atlanta headquarters and another at the VECTOR Institute in Russia.
In other words, the virus should not have turned up in an old box in Bethesda.
No one at the facility knew the smallpox vials were there, and the building was not equipped to handle viruses that require the most stringent safety and security measures like smallpox, anthrax and Ebola.
Officials have since learned that two of the six vials still contained samples of live, infectious virus, which may date back to the 1950s.
No one was infected, but officials are investigating the matter.
What could have happened:
Since the virus was alive in two of the vials, there was a chance it could have spread, experts say.
“The smallpox vials caused no harm sitting in a box,” said ABC News' chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser. “Had the box been crushed and the virus escaped, people in the immediate vicinity could have been infected.”
And since these people wouldn’t have known that they were exposed to the virus, they might have spread it to others, said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
“It would not have immediately been diagnosed,” said Schaffner, explaining that most doctors have never seen smallpox, which was eradicated in 1979. “So there would have been some opportunity for perhaps some limited spread around these people.”
People are no longer vaccinated for it and therefore don’t have immunity, Besser said. Once health officials realized smallpox was at fault for the illnesses, however, they would begin vaccinating people who had been in contact with those who were infected.
Another consequence of the lab blunder? Public panic.
“We would have immediately been worried about a bioterrorism event,” said Schaffner. “Given that this was in Washington, there would have been hullabaloo, eight-point headlines in The New York Times, The Washington Post.”
At least 84 lab workers at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta were exposed to live anthrax spores in June, according to the CDC.
The employees were not using proper safety guidelines for dealing with the lethal bacteria because the anthrax was supposed to have been “inactivated” and therefore not infectious, the agency said. It wasn’t until the samples were gathered to be destroyed in an incinerator that researchers discovered the live bacteria.
Since anthrax symptoms can take two months to appear, the exposed workers are being monitored and have been offered vaccines and antibiotics.
The CDC is investigating the matter and the lab and hallways of the facility have been decontaminated.
According to a congressional memo released last week, the anthrax was stored in an unlocked refrigerator in an unrestricted hallway. The memo also stated that disinfectants were expired, “germ materials” were transported between labs in Ziplock bags, and workers exposed to anthrax didn’t get medical examinations until five days after knowledge of the exposure.
What could have happened:
The exposed workers could have inhaled the bacterium and become infected, Besser said.
“As many as 45 percent would have died, even if their illness had been recognized promptly and treated with the right antibiotics,” he said. “Untreated anthrax pneumonia is fatal in 85 percent of infected people.”
Since anthrax is not spread from person-to-person, it would not have caused a widespread outbreak.
But the incident would have spread fear, according to Schaffner.
A CDC flu sample was accidentally contaminated with a deadly strain of bird flu and sent to a lab run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA discovered the contamination in May, but it wasn’t reported to top management until last week, according to the Associated Press.
What could have happened:
Avian flu doesn’t spread as easily as other strains of the virus, but close contacts of exposed workers would have been at risk, according to Schaffner, who added that the infection can be fatal.
Besser was also concerned about the bird population.
“The strain of bird flu mistakenly sent to the USDA is highly lethal in birds,” he said. “Release of this strain into American poultry flocks could have been devastating to that industry.”
Had that happened, people who had close contact with sick birds could also have become infected flu strain, Besser said.