The anthrax incident that happened in the laboratories of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta last month appears to unveil more issues in the handling of dangerous and potentially lethal pathogens in government laboratories.
In mid-June, the CDC revealed that a mishandling of the anthrax bacteria has potentially put about 84 CDC employees at risk of exposure when inactivated samples of the potentially deadly pathogen were transferred from a high-level biosecurity laboratory to lower-security laboratories.
The CDC conducted an investigation after the incident but the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducted a parallel investigation as well. The findings of the USDA's probe were revealed in a memo released by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on July 14, which set a hearing on the CDC anthrax incident at the Rayburn House Office Building on Wednesday, July 16.
"This hearing is an important opportunity to understand what happened and make sure every precaution is in place to prevent any such risk or exposure from happening again," said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
USDA inspectors who conducted the second investigation on the incident observed that at the time of their inspection, anthrax was found in unlocked refrigerators that were placed in unrestricted hallway where workers are free to pass through. The refrigerators did not even have signs to deter people from opening them and the key to one of the refrigerators were found in its lock.
The inspection team also reported that anthrax containers were missing and needed to be tracked down and located by the investigators. They also found anthrax in unregistered and unlocked lab and areas that were not intended for special use or storage.
Despite that anthrax is highly dangerous, the investigators also found that lab workers lack sufficient training on the properties, characteristics and the risks posed by anthrax. They were also not given trainings on how to use decontaminants and how to properly decontaminate areas.
The disinfectants that were used to decontaminate vials and bags were expired and lab workers could not recall whether or not they have used expired bleach to decontaminate the areas that were possibly exposed to the potentially lethal bacteria.
As for the lab workers who were potentially exposed to anthrax, the investigators reported that it took several days after notification before they were examined.