The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is resuming shipments of some dangerous biological samples to and from one of its high-security labs less than two weeks after imposing a moratorium in the wake of serious safety lapses with anthrax and bird flu, the agency announced Thursday.
After an "intensive" review by the CDC's internal working group to improve lab safety, CDC Director Tom Frieden has lifted the moratorium on shipments of certain samples involving its Clinical Tuberculosis Laboratory, the agency said in a news release.
The moratorium remains in place for other high-containment labs, the agency said. CDC labs that support direct patient care are receiving priority reviews, the agency said. The TB lab plays an important role in telling doctors whether their patients carry multi-drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis and which drugs would be most effective to treat them.
The agency also announced it has appointed an external advisory committee to help the agency improve its lab safety culture. The group is expected to meet in early August.
The 11-member committee will be chaired by Kenneth Berns, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Florida-Gainsville's department of molecular genetics and microbiology. The co-chair is Joseph Kanabrocki, assistant dean for biosafety at the University of Chicago, the CDC said. Others include biosafety experts from Duke University, the University of Texas Medical Branch and Public Health England.
"It's an extremely impressive group of people," said Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which represents state and local health department labs. He said he expects the group will be able to offer CDC practical solutions to improve its lab-safety culture.
Becker said resuming sample testing at the CDC's TB lab was critical because of its impact on patient care and that he and other U.S. lab officials are scheduled to have a conference call with CDC on Friday to discuss the agency's progress in resuming transfers at other agency labs. Among the top priorities, Becker said, is the CDC resuming shipping testing materials for chikungunya virus, which causes fever and joint pain and is increasingly being identified in the United States among people who have traveled to the Caribbean.
Also being held up by CDC's lab-transfer moratorium, Becker said, are materials needed for labs to do proficiency testing for the MERS virus, which can cause serious and sometimes deadly respiratory infections.
The moves CDC announced Thursday follow the CDC's announcement Wednesday that Michael Farrell, the head of the agency's anthrax lab, has resigned after nine years in the position.
On July 11, Frieden announced that he had imposed a moratorium effective that day on the agency transferring any biological samples out of its high-containment labs, which work with the most dangerous viruses, bacteria and toxins. He said that the movement of samples, including between CDC's labs and those outside the agency, would not resume until there had been a lab-by-lab assessment of safety practices.
Frieden also announced that he had appointed Dr. Michael Bell as the CDC's new director of lab safety, a position that would report directly to the CDC director and create a single point of accountability to address lab-safety issues,
The recent series of lab-safety blunders at CDC began June 5, when a laboratory scientist in the agency's Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory prepared an extract of anthrax as part of an experiment that sought to develop better methods for labs to quickly identify bacterial species in the field.
But the scientist used what the agency would later say was an unapproved and potentially ineffective method for deactivating the anthrax spores before sending the samples to other CDC labs. The other CDC labs thought they were working with killed bacteria and lacked safety equipment to experiment on live anthrax. Yet on June 13 staff in the lab that thought it had killed the anthrax noticed unexpected bacterial growth on a plate they had retained.
The issue resulted in concerns that dozens of CDC staff had potentially been exposed to live anthrax, although the agency said the risk of infection was remote. None has shown any signs of infection.
A separate incident, involving a different CDC lab cross-contaminating a benign sample of bird flu with a dangerous strain, remains under investigation.