The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced plans to hire a laboratory safety supervisor after an Ebola virus sample was mishandled last week, the third reported safety lapse with potentially dangerous pathogens at the agency’s labs in the past year.
The new position is under recruitment and the safety chief will be responsible for “identifying problems, establishing plans to solve them, and holding programs throughout CDC accountable for follow-up,” CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds told Reuters new agency.
Scientists discovered Dec. 23 that a technician in one of the agency’s labs was exposed to what may have been live Ebola virus. In March, the CDC inadvertently shipped a deadly strain of avian flu to a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory, and in June more than 80 CDC workers were potentially exposed to anthrax after a sample of the bacteria was mishandled, sparking congressional scrutiny of the agency and its director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, who pledged to improve safety measures.
The creation of the new high-level safety position was one of the key recommendations of a months-long internal safety investigation of CDC’s laboratory practices, but it has taken on new importance in recent days the face of yet another mishap, this time involving one of the world’s deadliest pathogens.
In the Ebola incident, a plate with material from an experiment involving the virus was sent from a high-security biosafety laboratory to a less-secure lab at the agency’s Atlanta campus, the CDC said in a Dec. 24 statement. Live Ebola virus requires the highest level of security with special equipment and handling, according to the agency’s rules.
A lab technician who processed the material was the only person believed to be exposed to the virus, the CDC said. The person has no symptoms and will be monitored for 21 days, the maximum incubation period for the virus. Fewer than a dozen people who entered the second, lower-security lab have been contacted “to make them aware” of the mishap, Reynolds said last week.
According to the CDC, the new laboratory safety supervisor will report directly to Dr. Frieden, the agency’s director. They will be tasked with “providing agency-wide leadership and accountability for laboratory science, safety, and quality,” the CDC said.
The search for a lab safety chief is being led by Dr. Rima Khabbaz, director of CDC’s Office of Infectious Diseases. Reuters reports that Dr. Frieden has tapped Dr. Leslie Dauphin, a CDC microbiologist, to oversee lab safety until the position is permanently filled. The agency did not provide a timeline for filling the position, Reuters said.
Other steps the CDC is taking to improve safety in its labs include requiring scientists to use validated methods to inactivate dangerous pathogens and to verify the sterility of any materials shipped out of CDC labs.