clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Report: CDC may have exposed a lab worker to Ebola

George Frey/Getty Images
  1. A CDC lab worker may have accidentally been exposed to Ebola after sending the wrong disease samples from one lab to another, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
  2. The agency will monitor the worker for Ebola's 21-day incubation period.
  3. The mistake is one of multiple errors the CDC has made this year, including dozens of workers accidentally exposed to anthrax and missing vials of smallpox that were later rediscovered.

Ebola sample may not have been inactive

The New York Times report says that one lab may have accidentally sent an active version of the Ebola disease to another lab down the hall, when they thought they were transferring an inactive strain of the disease. The technician worked in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab that, while in a high security facility, was not equipped to handle the active virus:

The error occurred on Monday when a high-security lab at the C.D.C. in Atlanta, working with Ebola virus from the epidemic in West Africa, sent samples that should have been inactivated to another C.D.C. laboratory, which was down the hall. But the lab sent out the wrong samples, ones that had not been inactivated and that may have contained the live virus

One of many errors

The nation's federal laboratories have already had an embarrassing year.

It all started with an anthrax mishap at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June, which also involved a strain of disease that was thought to be inactivated but wasn't. The head of that lab resigned in September. Then forgotten vials of smallpox turned up at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in July. Then there was news of an accidental mix-up of bird-flu with a less deadly flu strain at the CDC.

Luckily, there are no reports of anyone getting sick from any of these incidents.

Ebola outbreak  is still very, very unlikely

Even if the CDC lab worker does contract Ebola, the possibility of an outbreak in the United States is incredibly unlikely. Eight of the nine Ebola patients treated in the United States have survived, and only one, Thomas Duncan, transmitted the disease to other people.

As Vox's Amanda Taub wrote earlier this year, the United States has the health infrastructure necessary to halt the disease in its tracks:

In the United States, we have everything we need to make that system work: the health-care workers, the facilities and equipment, the disease surveillance mechanisms, the public sanitation, the education and communications infrastructure — and the public trust that lets all of those individual components work together, as a whole system that is more powerful than the sum of its parts.

By contrast, the worst-affected countries in this outbreak — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — all lack those resources. Their systems don't work, and that has left thousands of people in terrible danger from this disease.