Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
Air System Glitches Found at CDC Disease Laboratory
Official papers and e-mailed statements indicate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has faced multiple operational glitches in technology intended to ensure that disease particles cannot be carried by air out of a $214 million biodefense research space at the agency's headquarters in Atlanta, USA Today reported on Tuesday (see GSN, Aug. 6, 2009).
The Biosafety Level 3 laboratories are intended to enable safe handling of potentially lethal disease agents such as anthrax, SARS and monkeypox, some of which could be used in acts of biological terrorism. The federal government requires that such facilities possess "sustained directional airflow by drawing air into the laboratory from 'clean' areas toward 'potentially contaminated' areas."
Agency e-mail messages show that a "clean" walkway outside the research space at the Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory building in February was for a short period exposed to air from one of the laboratories. However, researchers at that point had not introduced disease materials into test animals, according to the documents.
The federal health agency "will do anything … to hide the fact that we have serious problems with the airflow and containment in this whole building," CDC animal resources biologist Kismet Scarborough stated in an April 9 e-mail message to CDC chief Thomas Frieden and other staffers.
Scarborough noted that CDC safety personnel had said "it doesn't matter if the dirty BSL 3 lab blows positive into the clean corridor as long as it is not sustained." That was a "totally ridiculous response," according to the scientist, who added that she was "horrified and dismayed at the events surrounding safety and the fact that even though this has been taken clear up the chain of command all the way to Dr. Frieden, no one is willing to admit the mistake or more importantly fix it."
Air flow at the facility has been an issue dating to 2010 or earlier. Records from a session in February of that year indicated that disease researchers said they "don't want to go into that facility because they don't feel comfortable with the way it is currently designed."
"Bottom line is we can't continue to operate the building the way it is … if (a bioterror lab inspector) finds out air is moving this direction they will shut this place down," agency safety chief William Howard said at the meeting.
No disease particles have escaped and there has been no harm to people at the facility, according to a CDC release. Research activities, the agency said, are conducted "in an environment with highly skilled staff, technical equipment, and safety systems that unfortunately, at times, experience challenges. Fortunately, this unique facility has multiple systems in place that provide appropriate redundancy, so when there is an incident, the public's safety, as well as worker safety, is not compromised."
Added Anthony Sanchez, who heads high-containment laboratory operations in the structure: "The scientists are happy with the facility. … It is safe, and we have highly professional persons working in there, and they don't have anything to worry about. ... I think the American public has gotten its money worth, and more."
Monitoring of CDC laboratories, and of similar facilities operated by other organizations, falls under the aegis of the agency itself.
Agency investigators "would flag as major violations in inspections of non-CDC facilities" the types of issues detailed in the papers obtained by the newspaper, said Richard Ebright, a biological safety specialist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
This is not the first safety issue noted in the seven-year-old building. A backup source of electricity failed to kick in when the structure lost power in 2007 (see GSN, July 24, 2007). The next year, duct tape was found being used to fasten the door to a laboratory (Alison Young, USA Today, June 12).
March 20, 2013
This report is part of a collection examining implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all states to implement measures aimed at preventing non-state actors from acquiring NBC weapons, related materials, and their means of delivery. It details implementation efforts in Central America, South America and the Caribbean to-date.
Aug. 22, 2012
This report is part of a collection examining implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all states to implement measures aimed at preventing non-state actors from acquiring NBC weapons, related materials, and their means of delivery. It details implementation efforts in Western Europe to-date.