An investigation into the mistaken shipment of deadly bird flu virus from a government laboratory this year found that a scientist took shortcuts to speed up the work and accidentally contaminated the samples, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday.
As a result, the CDC shipped a virulent avian flu virus, rather than a relatively benign animal strain, to a poultry research laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. No one became infected or fell ill, and the pathogen was destroyed. But after CDC lab members learned of the lapse, they didn't notify supervisors until more than six weeks later.
CDC director Tom Frieden has called that reporting delay the "most distressing" aspect of several recent incidents involving the mishandling of dangerous pathogens at the nation's labs, including potentially exposing dozens of employees to live anthrax.
The internal CDC investigation into the Jan. 17 flu lab incident found that the scientist failed to follow best practices and that no approved laboratory-specific operating procedures existed for the work being done. The errors most likely happened because the scientist was growing cell cultures from both virus strains at the same time at the same work station, the report found. There were no written records to document the procedures performed.
"We're pretty sure the person took shortcuts," said Anne Schuchat, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Schuchat and other top CDC officials have called the lapses unacceptable. The flu incident involves a lab that works with exotic viruses. It has been closed since July 9, when CDC leaders learned about the contamination.