Before anthrax mishap, CDC made similar lab safety pledges: lawmaker

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[July 18, 2014]  By David Morgan and Julie Steenhuysen

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers investigating repeated safety lapses at government laboratories questioned Thursday whether the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was up to the task of fixing the problem, given similar promises to remedy such breaches in 2012.

The CDC is under scrutiny for a June incident, in which more than 80 lab workers may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria that was mistakenly sent out of a high-security lab on its Atlanta campus. Federal investigators have since reported dozens of other infractions at CDC labs that handle deadly pathogens such as anthrax and avian flu.

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee is investigating the incident and the CDC's response. Committee members are weighing the possibility of imposing new outside oversight on CDC labs and crafting national lab safety standards that would be administered by a single government body.

On Thursday, Committee Chairman Fred Upton made public a 2012 letter from CDC Director Dr Thomas Frieden saying the agency had put a senior official in charge of lab security and was soliciting advice from outside experts in biosecurity.

"We have designated a senior official who will report directly to the CDC Director regarding concerns or complaints related to safety at CDC's laboratories," Frieden said in the letter from September 2012 that was addressed to Upton.

Two years later, those measures did not appear to prevent a new round of safety breaches, including the anthrax incident.

Last week, Frieden said the CDC had appointed Dr. Michael Bell to be in charge of lab safety issues and would convene a panel of outside experts to advise the agency.

“These measures sound very similar to the corrective actions Dr. Frieden outlined last Friday to address the current lab crisis," Upton said. "Why should we believe this time that things will be different?”

Frieden testified on Wednesday at a hearing of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

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When asked about the senior official put in charge of lab security in 2012, Frieden was unable to name the appointee or describe the official's duties.

"I will have to get back to you about that to get you the name and the details of what was done pursuant to that letter," he told Representative Gregg Harper, a Mississippi Republican.

CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said on Thursday that CDC official Joseph Henderson was named to the position around March 2013, and that the role included a broader portfolio of responsibilities. Henderson, currently director of the Office of Safety, Security and Asset Management, sat next to Frieden at the witness table during the subcommittee hearing.

"When that letter was written in September 2012, there may have been a person designated in an acting role. Joe was hired full time seven months later in 2013," Skinner said.

(Editing by Michele Gershberg and Bernadette Baum)

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