On Friday the 13th of June 2014, a scientist in a bioterrorism research laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta noticed something unsettling. An unexpected growth appeared on a plate that supposedly held an inactivated form of the deadly anthrax bacteria.
More worrisome still, the plate was part of a larger sample — but the rest of that sample had already been removed and taken to another CDC lab that wasn’t equipped for experiments on pathogens as easily spread as live anthrax. Unaware that the sample might be live, a scientist there had already begun working with it, first using a nitrogen air stream to clean flakes off the plate holding it — a process that could transform the anthrax sample into an airborne threat.
By the time the CDC realized a live anthrax sample had been moved around its campus, sent to a low-security lab, handled by unknowing scientists, and maybe even aerosolized, a week had passed. At first, just two CDC employees were sent for testing. But officials then discovered workers had come and gone from restricted areas without being accurately recorded, and in the end 81 people had to be medically monitored.
Ultimately, no one was infected. But a recent audit by the investigative arm of Congress makes clear that porous government oversight played a part in the incident, and concludes that the problems that enabled the breach to take place haven’t been fixed.
Safety, the agency found, was compromised by an inherent conflict of interest: Key federal agencies such as the CDC that work with deadly pathogens and toxins, including Ebola, bird flu, smallpox, bubonic plague and ricin, determine for themselves whether that work is being done safely, without any independent oversight.
Instead, oversight is conducted through the so-called Federal Select Agent Program, in which the CDC and the Agriculture Department conduct inspections based on the rules they decide for themselves, and set standards they must meet at their own financial expense. The inspectors are not, an October report by the Government Accountability Office noted, “structurally distinct and separate from all the labs they oversee.”
Moreover, the lead federal inspection agency — the CDC — itself has accumulated the largest number of rules violations, according to a lawmaker's account of information provided to Congress in 2015.
Along with other flaws, these shortcomings render oversight “duplicative, fragmented, and dependent on self-policing,” the GAO report said. America’s approach, the report added, isn’t as hardy as some of its international allies, which also conduct sensitive work on deadly pathogens, but have assigned independent regulators to oversee it.
Speaking at a Nov. 2 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee on oversight and investigation, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said that “we can’t just keep stumbling along like this from year to year.” Unless the Select Agent program is reformed, she said, “at some point, something very bad is going to happen.”
Asked for comment, CDC spokesman Jason McDonald said, “We believe that we are fulfilling the mandate given to us by Congress,” but added that “there is always room for process improvement.”