NEW YORK (AP) — A
government scientist kept silent about a potentially dangerous lab blunder
and revealed it only after workers in another lab noticed something fishy,
according to an internal investigation.
happened in January at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention in Atlanta. A lab scientist accidently mixed a deadly strain
of bird flu with a tamer strain, and sent the mix to another CDC lab and to
an outside lab in Athens, Georgia.
No one was sickened
by bird flu. But unsuspecting scientists worked with the viral mix for
months before it was discovered.
CDC officials have
called the incident the most worrisome in a series of lab safety problems at
the government agency, long regarded as one of the most respected public
health agencies in the world. Earlier this summer, a lab mishandled anthrax
samples and both the bird flu and anthrax labs were shut down.
"We all feel
horrible this happened," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, who oversees the CDC's
Influenza Division — which includes the lab where the bird flu accident took
Because of employee
privacy rules, she said she could not name the lab scientist or the leader
of the scientist's team, who were both faulted in the investigation report
released Friday. She said disciplinary actions are taking place, but she did
not provide any details.
CDC's release of
the report is one of many signs the agency is trying to make things right,
said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt
University. But he added that the CDC should at least disclose any
disciplinary measures, to reassure the public that the agency is taking the
According to the
report, the lab scientist was doing work with both bird flu strains — the
deadly form and a tamer version. Lab rules call for them to be handled
separately, and the tasks should take at least 90 minutes.
investigation found the work was completed in 51 minutes. That's a clear
indication the scientist took short-cuts, Schuchat said.
The lab scientist
told investigators that the work was done in the proper sequence, but noted
being rushed to finish the job and attend a meeting. CDC officials say it's
possible the scientist worked on both strains at the same time.
In February, some
of the mixed virus sample was sent to another CDC lab in Atlanta. In March,
a shipment of it went to a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory in
Athens. For a study, the bird flu virus was given to chickens. The chickens
died, prompting USDA staff to take a hard look at the sample and detect the
The USDA lab
notified the CDC lab in May, and the CDC lab confirmed the finding.
But the CDC team
leader didn't report what happened to supervisors or anyone else, reasoning
that the viral mix was at all times contained in specialized laboratories
and was never a threat to the public, the investigation report said.
CDC officials were
only notified in June after the second CDC lab reported a problem with its
sample. Two weeks later, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden was notified.
Frieden ordered the
flu and anthrax labs closed, an internal review and other steps. The anthrax
lab director resigned last month.