Two of the most serious lapses concerned a discovery of lost vials containing live smallpox and a new report of the accidental shipment by CDC workers of highly pathogenic bird flu to a federal lab. These are deadly infectious agents that if released to the public, could cause mass epidemics. Their use in germ warfare would be catastrophic.
The recent revelations “have created a crisis of faith in the federal agency, prompting calls for an independent body to investigate such episodes in the future, as well as for sweeping changes at the agency,” the New York Times reported.
In the smallpox incident, the sealed vials were discovered on July 1 at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md. The vials, which were labeled “variola,” another name for smallpox, were sent to the CDC in Atlanta, where tests showed that they contained smallpox, the Times article said.
After smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, the only known samples of the virus were at high-security labs at the CDC in Atlanta and in Russia. At that time, according to a New York Times interview with Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist, every single research lab in the world was asked to scour their facilities and destroy all smallpox specimens.
“The fact that these vials were found in a storeroom,” Schaffner said, “seems curious beyond belief.”
SECURITY LAPSES NOT ISOLATED INCIDENTS
In a blistering congressional inquiry last week, lawmakers hammered questions at Dr. Frieden who has headed the CDC since 2009.
The congressmen cited an ongoing investigation that revealed the health agency repeatedly failed to follow safety protocols in many of its laboratories that handle dangerous specimens.
Lawmakers wanted to know if these security lapses represented systemic negligence and how the CDC could have allowed this state of affairs to evolve.
In the anthrax incident, for example, at least 80 workers were exposed to potentially live pathogens after workers ignored safety precautions in transferring the anthrax from a secure-containment lab.
In the case of bird influenza, CDC workers had somehow shipped a dangerous strain of the disease to a poultry research lab run by the Department of Agriculture. Known as H5N1, the virus has killed more than half of the 650 people who had been infected with it since 2003.
FRIEDEN’S LEADERSHIP QUESTIONED
House Oversight subcommittee chair Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., questioned Frieden’s ability to manage – and fire – researchers who fail to uphold safety regulations, telling the CDC director that Congress has “zero tolerance” for negligence that endangers human life.
“Sooner or later [under the present conditions] someone is bound to get very sick and die,” he said.
He held up a Ziploc plastic bag containing lab dishes to demonstrate how CDC lab workers reportedly transferred the anthrax samples, instead of in specially sealed, airtight containers. The workers afterwards said they didn’t know the anthrax bacteria were live.
“This is like saying I didn’t know the gun was loaded after someone gets shot,” Murphy told Frieden. “Your job is to always assume it is loaded. For someone to say, ‘Well, I didn’t think the anthrax was live,’ is unacceptable.”
A humbled Frieden admitted in his testimony that the system has way too many cracks, and the CDC has not done enough to foster a culture of safety where employees are encouraged to report incidents that threaten the health of workers and the general public.
He told members of Congress that he has taken “sweeping measures” to address the situation and had shut down two labs where the incidents had occurred. Frieden also said that a full investigation is underway internally that will evaluate lab safety protocols at all labs associated with the CDC.
But trust in the CDC has been so badly shaken that many feel an internal investigation falls short of the sweeping reforms needed and that Freiden himself has not addressed the full dimensions of the problem.
‘STUNNED AND APPALLED’
Critics point to the fact that no one in the agency’s top leadership had been informed about the bird flu fiasco until a month after it happened, although the CDC’s lab was aware of it much earlier.
“I was just frankly, stunned and appalled,” Dr. Frieden said in an interview with The New York Times, without explaining the lack of informed management at senior levels of authority.
His apparent laissez faire leadership is a far cry from the profile The New York Times painted of Frieden as an intensely hands-on director a year after he assumed his post as head of the CDC.
In that article, The NY Times contrasted him with his predecessor, Dr. Gerberding, who “had become so removed from day-to-day management that some top agency officials went weeks without seeing or hearing from her.”
Dr. Frieden, on the other hand, “marches around the agency’s Atlanta campus so rapidly that staffers have to trot to keep up. He wanders the agency’s hallways and drops in on scientists unannounced to ask about their work, both delighting and terrifying them,” The NY Times article enthused.
What a difference a few years on the job can make.
In light of its recent major security lapses and considering how poorly the CDC performed its own oversight role, many have lost all confidence in the agency that has long boasted a record of excellence in tracking the spread of infectious disease and monitoring the causes of sickness and deaths.
Its $10 billion annual budget and ambitious programs have helped make it one of the world’s premier public health agencies. But with calls coming for an outside investigative body to overhaul security and safety protocols at CDC facilities, and improve accountability and day-to-day management, the agency’s leadership faces a long uphill climb in reclaiming its vaunted reputation.
For many who have followed the saga of the still pending Bris Milah Lawsuit that seeks to overturn a NY City law banning metzitzah b’peh, the name “Tom Frieden” and the CDC trigger some very troubling associations.
Frieden is remembered for joining ranks with former Mayor Bloomberg and New York City’s Department of Health in an all-out assault on metzitzah b’peh (MBP), via a study put out by the CDC that slandered the practice as dangerous to newborns.
The tampering with bris milah by NYC officials was a slow, incremental process, beginning with a libel campaign seven years ago against a reputable mohel. Since that time, fresh attacks against mohelim were periodically launched by the Department of Health officials slandering MBP as likely to cause illness and death in newborns.
The campaign came to a climax last year, first with the publishing of the CDC’s study that purported to show “probable causation” between herpes and MBP.
The study was criticized by a host of experts as deeply flawed and unprofessional, riddled with inaccurate data.
But even after being debunked as incompetent, it was exploited by the Board of Health in order to pass a new law last October banning MBP, except when accompanied by parental consent.
The uproar over MBP brought about a bizarre situation whereby the likely cause of neonatal deaths from HSV-1 (a herpes-infected family member or caregiver) was being ignored in favor of advancing the misguided crusade against MBP.
Instead of nailing down the real culprit causing herpes infection in newborns, the DOH released the widely discredited CDC study that focused the blame solely on MBP. The report asserted that MBP poses higher risks of HSV-1 which could be fatal to newborns.
CDC head Tom Friedan, who was formerly the head of the DOH from 2000-2009, was as explicit about his agenda as he could be, telling constituents he hoped to achieve his personal goal that MBP “never be performed.”
His crusade took the form of a publicly issued “Open Letter to the Jewish Community,” in which he arrogated the right to decide halacha based on his flawed statistics and anti-religious bias.
A group of rabbis and askonim asked to meet with Frieden and his staff in an effort to find a peaceful way to resolve the impasse.
“It was erev Shabbos Chanukah – a short and very busy day,” one of the participants at the meeting recalled. “Still, we were hopeful of reaching a compromise.”
“Dr. Frieden started the meeting by bluntly restating his approach, dismissing our arguments as not worth discussing. The thrust of our position was that we should pursue a more scientific approach, namely DNA testing, to test his theory – which at the end of the day was all it was – before rushing to condemn a millennia-old practice with an extraordinary safety record.”
“The atmosphere at the meeting was very tense,” the askan recalled. “At one point, someone from our group suggested that we involve a third party — perhaps the NY State Health Department.
Frieden was disdainful. “That would be like the rabbis giving over their authority to the Pope,” he retorted.
“We were shocked at the insensitivity and disrespect,” the askan said. “Realizing the futility of trying to talk to this man, we rose and walked out.”