We do not claim to be medical research experts. Nonetheless, we offer this humble safety tip to those who are: When conducting research on deadly pathogens, safety protocols must be extremely restrictive and strictly followed -- always.
That sage advice probably sounds obvious and might even prompt a teenager to say, "well, duh."
But, apparently, it is advice employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta must hear. The nation's pre-eminent medical research laboratory has been rocked by revelations of scientists' sloppy handling of anthrax and an extremely dangerous strain of the deadly bird flu.
Among its many functions, the CDC is the institution that actually sets safety and security standards for dealing with such dangerous pathogens, but its own internal investigation has revealed that it has not always lived up to those standards itself. In fact, it is only through sheer happenstance that tragedy was avoided in these cases.
The CDC was first embarrassed by the news that dozens of laboratory employees at its headquarters had potentially been exposed to anthrax samples through improper handling of the deadly pathogen.
As Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the CDC, was preparing to release details of his investigation to the public, he learned that CDC workers had shipped a strain of the H5N1 avian influenza virus to a research lab run by the Department of Agriculture. Frieden discovered that the incident -- which was at least as dangerous as the anthrax incident, if not more so -- occurred in late May and had not been report to CDC's top management until July 7.
While employees at the CDC had been told, upper management had not.
Frieden conducted an investigation of that incident as well and on Friday released his report on both of them. It was candid and critical of senior staff members for failing to write a proper plan for the anthrax study and it found that the agency was not properly ready to respond to an employee being exposed to anthrax.
Frieden has ordered an immediate review of all protocols at the agency's highest-security labs and plans to bring in outside experts to form an external advisory group on lab safety.
Some have argued that the CDC should have oversight from an agency with subpoena powers comparable to the National Transportation Safety Board. We are not ready to jump on that bandwagon.
Frieden has taken responsibility and what appears to be appropriate action to fix the problems. A distinguished external advisory group should be sufficient to ensure that all labs are operated safely. If that should fail, perhaps then it will be time to explore further action.