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A series of security failures in US disease-control labs handling lethal bugs such as anthrax, smallpox and bird flu has raised questions about the dangers of research into deadly pathogens
For the danger they posed, the lapses were appalling. They put lives at risk, that much is clear. But they were shocking, too, due to where they happened. The US government’s high-security disease-control laboratories – which house samples of the most harmful germs in the world – cannot afford to screw up.
First came news of a single incident. Staff working on deadly bioterrorism agents at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta followed the wrong procedure to “inactivate” batches of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax. Though potentially still lethal, the bugs were sent to another CDC lab where staff were not equipped to handle live spores. A report into the lapse published last week revealed a worrying pattern of staff failures, and found that dozens were potentially exposed. The CDC doled out antibiotics and anthrax vaccine. Affected rooms were sterilised. They were lucky: no one got the disease. But that is hardly the point.