Safety lapses at government labs raise serious bioterror concerns

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Recent safety lapses at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institute of Health (NIH) facilities illustrate a new and grave bioterror threat: the risk for disease and death emanating from biocontainment laboratories themselves, according to a commentary being published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

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Annals of Internal Medicine

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Author, Deborah Cotton, MD, MPH, Deputy Editor of Annals of Internal Medicine, is Professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and Professor of Epidemiology at Boston School of Public Health. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). Dr. Cotton says that recent lapses are so great in number and risk that it is time to suspend all research at biosafety level (BSL) 3 and BSL-4 labs until a thorough review of the incidents can be completed.

She cites a recent incident at the CDC where laboratory workers improperly handled and stored live anthrax and another incident where workers inadvertently mixed the deadly H5N1 (“bird flu”) influenza virus with a far more benign influenza strain and then shipped it to an outside lab. And in a lab at the heart of the NIH campus, vials of smallpox virus labeled “1954” were found sitting for decades, posing a potential risk for bioterror — “truly the stuff of science fiction movies,” Dr. Cotton writes.

She suggests that many factors including human error, poor inventory control, lax or nonexistent policies, and administrative deficiencies played a role in these situations. To contain the terror within, Dr. Cotton suggests greatly limiting the number of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs opened in the future.

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Annals of Internal Medicine

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