A dangerous mistake happened at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory in Atlanta which may have exposed a technician to the very fatal Ebola virus. The technician will undergo 21 days of observation, which is the incubation period of the virus.
The news was met with utter disbelief and apprehension from several safety professionals. Similar accidents involving samples of anthrax and flu were similarly mishandled at the C.D.C. just few months ago. The credibility of the agency has taken a huge blow thanks to its no longer spotless safety record, which was considered one of the best on the entire planet.
There were other employees in the lab during the accidents, less than a dozen according to Thomas Skinner, a C.D.C. spokesman, and they were deemed to be free of infection. Is this another boo-boo in the making? How can they be sure when the 21 day observation period isn’t over yet?
According to CDC officials, the Ebola virus samples pose no danger to the public since they are properly packed and remain inside the C.D.C. campus.
A high-security lab working with Ebola virus specimens coming from West Africa gave the wrong sample to another CDC lab located in the same building. It should have contained dead samples but instead contained the live virus. This error happened last Monday.
The technician in charge of handling the specimens wore complete safety gear, except for a face mask. Exposure to the virus is a big possibility.
Dr. Stuart Nichol, chief of the C.D.C.’s Viral Special Pathogens Branch, said that the mistake was attributed to human error, he explained last Tuesday during an interview.
Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the C.D.C., said he was “troubled by this incident” and promised “a full review of every aspect.” Thousands of agency scientist he said, “Have taken extraordinary steps in recent months to improve safety.”
The C.D.C. promised last summer to make the necessary procedural changes and to appoint a group of outside experts to help solve the problems in the agency.
In July, Dr. Frieden, under harsh questioning from members of Congress, conceded that the mistakes at C.D.C. labs were not isolated incidents, but were rather due to a broad pattern of unreliable procedures. He used the phrase “tipping point” concerning one incident that led agency officials to recognize that they must find a way to solve the problem.
Upon hearing another accident had happened in the agency, Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and an expert on biological weapons, said: “They did not learn. They do not learn. They seem incapable of learning.”
He said, “Errors were inexcusable. Labs that produce samples of killed virus should test to make sure they are dead,” Dr. Ebright said, “, and labs receiving those samples should test them before working with them.
“C.D.C. labs that receive putatively inactivated samples still are working with them with no safety and security precautions beyond those at a dentist’s office,” Dr. Ebright said.
In response, the CDC spokesman Mr. Skinner, said that the procedures that Mr. Ebright have mentioned “were very much in place.” The agency will investigate whether they were followed correctly.
Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Southern California and an expert on human error, said: “I am speechless. This is yet another indication that this organization needs to do a serious soul searching to improve its safety culture.”