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US admits lax handling of deadly pathogens

CDC report reveals as many as 84 workers may have been exposed to live anthrax

The ability of the United States government to safely store and transport deadly pathogens, including anthrax, was being questioned yesterday after safety lapses at federal laboratories were revealed.

The incidents over the past decade prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to halt operations at its bioterrorism rapid-response lab and an influenza lab, and to impose a moratorium on any biological material leaving numerous other CDC labs.

"These events should never have happened," said CDC director Thomas Frieden. The American people "may be wondering whether we're doing what we need to do to keep them safe and to keep our workers safe," he said. "I'm disappointed and, frankly, I'm angry about it."

The CDC disclosed the incidents in a report on Friday detailing safety lapses that occurred in June, when as many as 84 workers may have been exposed to live anthrax after employees unknowingly sent samples of the bacterium between CDC labs.

As part of an internal investigation, the agency found: "This is not the first time an event of this nature has occurred. At the time of this writing, CDC is aware of four other such incidents in the past decade."

A sample of flu virus contaminated with the deadly H5N1 influenza virus was inappropriately sent in March from a CDC lab in Atlanta to a US Department of Agriculture laboratory in Athens, Georgia. CDC staff members became aware of the contamination about six weeks ago but apparently never reported it to agency leaders. "I learned about it less than 48 hours ago," Frieden said, calling it "an unacceptable delay".

Washington Post