Five members of a congressional watchdog committee sent a letter today calling for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to produce by next week copies of all safety incident reports involving problems at a $214 million bioterror lab at the agency's Atlanta headquarters.
The committee is investigating whether the CDC "is complying with Federal safety requirements in its operation of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, also known as CDC Building 18," the letter said.
The letter to CDC director Thomas Frieden, signed by three Republicans and two Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said their investigation is in response to a USA TODAY report this month revealing that the high-containment lab and animal holding area has had repeated problems with airflow systems designed to help prevent the release of infectious agents.
The same lab building, which opened in 2005 and was touted by the CDC as the world's most advanced laboratory, made news in 2007 when backup generators didn't work to keep airflow systems working during a power outage, then again in 2008 for a high-containment lab door that was being sealed with duct tape. The duct tape was applied after an incident in 2007 when a ventilation system malfunctioned and pulled potentially contaminated air out of the lab and into a "clean" hallway; nine CDC workers were tested for potential exposure to Q fever bacteria. None was infected.
The committee's investigative letter to the CDC is signed by the committee chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.; and Reps. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations; and Michael Burgess, R-Texas, vice chairman of the health subcommittee. It also is signed by Reps. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Diana DeGette of Colorado, the ranking Democrat on the oversight subcommittee.
MORE: Read the committee's letter to the CDC
CDC officials were not immediately available for comment.
The letter instructs the CDC to produce to the committee by July 6 all documents relating to biosafety incidents since 2005 in Building 18's Biosafety Level 3 labs, as well as all e-mails, meeting minutes and other documents relating to senior officials' discussions of safety issues in the building and all documents relating to recommendations or solutions to safety problems.
USA TODAY reported this month that air from inside a potentially contaminated lab briefly blew outward in February into a "clean" corridor where visitors weren't wearing any protective gear, which raised concern about exposure risks, according to e-mails reporting and discussing what happened. Research animals in the lab had not been infected at the time of the incident, the records say.
CDC engineers have raised written concerns about the air containment systems since at least 2010. At that time, scientists working with pox viruses, such as monkeypox, expressed concerns about airflow and said they "don't want to go into that facility because they don't feel comfortable with the way it is currently designed," according to minutes from a meeting in February 2010 to discuss reversing the way air flowed through the labs and animal-holding areas.
According to the minutes, CDC safety manager William Howard said, "Bottom line is we can't continue to operate the building the way it is ... if (a bioterror lab inspector) finds out air is moving this direction they will shut this place down."
The CDC has refused to grant interviews or answer questions submitted in writing about the problems inside Building 18. In a statement this month, the CDC said there have been no releases of germs and no one has been injured. Experiments in the building's high-containment labs are "done in an environment with highly skilled staff, technical equipment, and safety systems that unfortunately, at times, experience challenges. Fortunately, this unique facility has multiple systems in place that provide appropriate redundancy, so when there is an incident, the public's safety, as well as worker safety, is not compromised." The agency said it always takes "appropriate steps" to address incidents when they occur but provided no details.
BSL-3 labs are required under federal safety guidelines to have "sustained directional airflow by drawing air into the laboratory from 'clean' areas toward 'potentially contaminated' areas."
The airflow system is designed to protect against the release of microbes, especially those that have the potential to become airborne and infect workers who could spread disease in the community.
The CDC is responsible for inspecting its own labs, as part of a federal program where it oversees labs nationwide that work with germs or toxins that could potentially be used as bioweapons.