House subcommittee investigates CDC anthrax incidents

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations continued its investigation on Wednesday of incidents involving the mishandling of anthrax and other dangerous agents by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last week, leaders of the subcommittee sent letters to Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC, and Daniel Levinson, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, requesting documents regarding biosafety issues and the CDC laboratories. The subcommittee's Wednesday hearing sought to highlight its findings and notes, according to an Energy and Commerce Committee press release.

"The purpose of the hearing is to analyze what went wrong; why the anthrax incident occurred, whether the recent incidents over the last week raise systemic concerns, and what can be done about it, including possible legislative action," Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) said. "Each layer we peel back in this investigation seems to reveal a new instance of carelessness in the CDC's management of dangerous pathogens. This week's hearing is an opportunity for the agency to answer tough questions about the lessons it can learn from these incidents, the scope of the problems, and the steps it plans to take to protect the public and workers from grave biosafety hazards."

The subcommittee found that a recent anthrax inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHS) raised more concerns about the scope of potential mishandling. The APHS report found there were missing anthrax containers that had to be tracked down by inspectors, anthrax was stored in unlocked refrigerators in an unregistered hallway, select agent materials were transferred using Ziploc bags and disinfectant used for decontamination was expired.

The report also found the CDC Occupational Health Clinic was not prepared to adequately respond to the exposure of a large number of individuals and some staff members were not examined for five days following notification.

The CDC also failed to monitor and effectively enforce certain federal select agent regulations at the labs, which may have put public safety and health at increased risk, according to the report.