Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta mishandled an Ebola sample Monday and a laboratory technician is being monitored for possible exposure to the deadly virus, the agency reported Wednesday.
The agency said that “a small amount of material from an Ebola virus experiment,” possibly containing live virus, was securely but mistakenly transferred from a top-level bio-safety lab, reserved for research on the most lethal agents, to a lower-level lab, where research on moderate pathogens is conducted.
The CDC said the sample was on a sealed plate but that it nonetheless “cannot rule out possible exposure” by the lab technician, whose health will be monitored for disease symptoms for 21 days, the known incubation period of the virus that is sweeping West Africa.
Up to a dozen other scientists who entered the lower-level lab before the mistake was discovered on Tuesday are not considered to be at risk, said Barbara Reynolds, the agency’s chief spokeswoman.
“There was no possible exposure outside the secure laboratory at CDC and no exposure or risk to the public,” the agency’s statement said.
It said that the lab already had been decontaminated and the Ebola sample destroyed as a routine procedure before the error was realized. The discovery prompted a second decontamination of the lower-level lab, which was then closed, with all transfers from the higher-security lab halted.
In the top-level, or Biosafety-Level 4, laboratory, researchers must wear protective suits or work with pathogens that are in a sealed cabinet, according to CDC literature. In the lower-level lab, however, procedures only require researchers to wash their hands when finished working.
While the Ebola virus is generally not transmitted via the air, as are flu viruses, it is highly virulent through exchanges of body fluids. It wasn’t immediately made clear how the lab technician might be at risk.
The incident was reported to the agency’s leadership within an hour of its discovery and has been reported to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, the CDC said.
The news, on Christmas Eve, revealed only the latest in a recent series of blunders that have put at risk scientists working with some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens at ultra-secure civilian and military laboratories.
Agency Director Tom Frieden said he has ordered an inquiry into the incident.
“I am troubled by this incident in our Ebola research laboratory in Atlanta,” Frieden said in a statement. “. . . I have directed that there be a full review of every aspect of the incident and that CDC take all necessary measures.
“Thousands of laboratory scientists in more than 150 labs throughout CDC have taken extraordinary steps in recent months to improve safety. No risk to staff is acceptable, and our efforts to improve lab safety are essential. The safety of our employees is our highest priority.”