The same federal scientist who recently found forgotten samples of smallpox at a federal lab also uncovered over 300 additional vials, many bearing the names of highly contagious viruses and bacteria.
Food and Drug Administration officials said Wednesday the undocumented collection contained 327 carefully packaged vials, listing pathogens like dengue, influenza and rickettsia. Last week the government only disclosed that it had recovered six glass vials of smallpox dating from the 1950s.
The new revelations raise serious concerns about the government’s ability to secure its collections of potentially deadly pathogens.
“The reasons why these samples went unnoticed for this long is something we’re actively trying to understand,” said FDA deputy director for biologics Dr. Peter Marks.
The samples, including those labeled smallpox, were found in 12 boxes in a corner of a cold storage room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, that has been used by the Food and Drug Administration since 1972. FDA officials estimate the collection was assembled between 1946 and 1964 by government scientists.
“The fact that these materials were not discovered until now is unacceptable,” said Karen Midthun, of FDA’s director for biologics. “However, upon finding these materials our staff did the right thing – they immediately notified the appropriate authorities who secured the materials and determined there was no exposure.”
FDA scientists said they have not yet confirmed whether the newly disclosed vials actually contained the pathogens listed on their labels. The agency is conducting a nationwide search of all cold storage units for any other missing samples.
Investigators destroyed 32 vials containing tissue samples and a non-contagious virus related to smallpox. Several unlabeled vials were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing and the remaining 279 samples were shipped to the Department of Homeland Security for safekeeping. FDA officials said there is no evidence anyone was exposed to any of the agents, which were packed in heat-sealed glass vials with no signs of leakage.
The finding of freeze-dried smallpox samples was disturbing because smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, and world health authorities said the only known samples left were safely stored in super-secure laboratories in Atlanta and in Russia.
It was the second recent incident in which a U.S. government health agency appeared to have mishandled a highly dangerous biologic agent. Last month, scores of employees at the CDC in Atlanta were feared exposed to anthrax because of a laboratory safety lapse. The CDC began giving them antibiotics as a precaution.
In separate congressional testimony Wednesday, CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden acknowledged that systemic safety problems have for years plagued federal public health laboratories that handle dangerous germs such as anthrax and bird flu. Frieden added that his agency had long thought of the lapses as unrelated accidents.
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.
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