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America's bioterrorism labs have a disturbing safety record

Worker in CDC Bio Safety Lab-Level 4 laboratory
Worker in CDC Bio Safety Lab-Level 4 laboratory
CDC

It's been a rough summer for US government laboratories studying dangerous pathogens — after a series of safety mishaps were made public.

And now it's getting worse. Alison Young of USA Today unearthed documents showing that more than 1,000 lab mishaps involving bioterrorism agents were reported to federal regulators from 2008 to 2012.

About half of those incidents required workers to undergo medical evaluations. Five actually got workers sick, and two sickened animals. Here's one example, as reported by Young:

2008: A research facility studying brucellosis was fined $425,000 and was ordered to suspend its research after a cow in a disease-free herd adjacent to the facility became infected with the disease. USDA officials would not answer USA TODAY's questions about the incident. CDC officials said: "The cow was destroyed. This release was determined not to be a threat to public, animal or plant health or safety." A second 2008 incident noted in the report involved a lab worker who became ill as a result of her working with brucella bacteria.

The USA Today report did not reveal the identities of the various laboratories involved.

It's possible, however, that some of these incidents occurred at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has been enduring close scrutiny after some of its workers unwittingly gave live anthrax to other labs in June, potentially exposing dozens of workers to the deadly bacteria.

An ensuing investigation then revealed four other incidents in which the CDC had accidentally sent out dangerous microbes, including deadly bird flu.

A recent CDC investigation into the bird flu incident has revealed more about what went wrong there. As Lena H. Sun and Brady Dennis report at the Washington Post, key-card records for lab entries and exits indicate that an experienced lab worker accidentally contaminated a more benign flu sample with deadly bird flu while rushing to get to a laboratory meeting. It seems that the worker didn't follow best practices for how to appropriately handle these viruses.

Some of the bird flu details seem especially disturbing. There were no written records for what the worker did. And after lab members realized what had happened, they didn't report it for more than six weeks. It's unclear if they were trying to cover it up, or if they were unaware that it should be reported.

Luckily, no one has fallen ill from either of the recent anthrax or bird flu mishaps. (And given how long it's been since exposure, it's unlikely that anyone will.)

separate incident at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda occurred in July when lab workers found vials of smallpox and other pathogens that no one even knew had been hiding there for decades.

Altogether, these incidents have been leading some to question whether current oversight of research on dangerous pathogens is sufficient and even suggest that some of this research isn't safe enough to continue.