Due to several “safety lapses” with dangerous pathogens at the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the organizations’ administration has created a new safety chief position in November. As of January 1st, the position is still “under recruitment.” According to a CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds, the CDC wants to recruit someone who is able to identify and solve the existing problems with the safety in the agency’s labs and design ways to make the labs for “accountable for follow-up.” This action was prompted by several events in the last year. On December 23, a technician was exposed to the Ebola virus when he was processing it, in March the CDC sent a deadly strain of avian flu to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Laboratory that was supposed to be inactivated, and in June the anthrax virus was “mishandled” causing exposure of more than 80 workers to the virus. These news have galvanized a lot of criticism towards the organization to which the nation looks up to for protecting us from the same pathogens that it’s failing to protect its workers from. The new lab safety chief will have the important role of not only improving the safety measures and expanding biosafety training, but also assuring the nation of CDC’s strength, stability, and reliability. Is hiring one person really enough to fulfill this task?
From my personal experience of working in a lab, I know that all it takes to get bio-safety training is to watch several video modules and pass a quiz on the Stanford Axess training site. The system has loopholes in that it allows the viewer to go to the end of the video without watching all of it and then guessing at the end. The answers to the questions often seem logical and even obvious, so one doesn’t need to be knowledgeable about the details of handling dangerous pathogens in order to pass the training. I don’t know how the lab workers are trained at the CDC to handle the pathogens, but these “safety lapses” in the CDC suggest that perhaps more drastic changes need to happen at the structural level. Perhaps the CDC’s hiring of a new safety chief serves as a distraction to the real problem at hand: the issue of many worker’s unpreparedness to deal with these pathogens and lack of attention paid to the potential for disaster.
~ Mariam Kyarunts