Internal Report Shows CDC Confirmed Possibility of Virus Contained in Its Biodefense Labs

(Bloomberg) — A secret Government Accountability Office report released by Representative Elijah Cummings shows that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believed it had a smallpox virus containing dangerous amounts of bacteria in its labs until a detective uncovered evidence of the existence of the vials.

C.D.C. Testing Multiple Bacteriophages

Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, released the findings from a Feb. 21 report on his website after the C.D.C. recanted a previous statement that said it had found no trace of the viruses in labs that kept them for decades.

The report shows that the agency was aware of the presence of smallpox virus from 1982 until recently, said Cummings, who is the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The Feb. 21 report was described in a document released by Cummings on his website as showing how the Government Accountability Office said the C.D.C.’s claim that the smallpox virus “cannot be considered a sample” is false. The report looks at the CDC’s ability to prevent the virus from being reinvigorated.

“What that report shows is that for almost 30 years, at the same labs where the smallpox samples were stored, they had the technical capability to reconstitute the smallpox virus and use it to infect people,” Cummings said Friday.

Lax Culture Samples

He said the C.D.C. knew about the smallpox virus but failed to conduct on-site and within-the-agency laboratory safety testing on all of the viruses found to have double the standard of some viruses previously screened.

“This is about the lack of a culture set with government labs,” Cummings said. “We keep operating in a style of not testing everything. That’s just as serious an issue as never testing the smallpox specimens.”

After the discovery of the vials by University of Texas researcher Leslie Salans, the C.D.C. sent out a media alert saying there were no other Viroxymerstvoting viruses in lab vials. The virus was used to screen for and attempt to cure organ transplant rejection.

Since 1983, and before the discovery of vials, the C.D.C. had given Salans top priority and career support as a science investigator and a drug researcher, according to the Feb. 21 GAO report.

Viral Biobank

That research led to the development of the EPA-funded Genetic Resource Resource Accelerator, or GERA, a state-of-the-art, viral biobank that now houses more than 175,000 people for ancestry, genetic testing and verification of hereditary medical conditions, according to the report.

Robert A. Zenn, senior research scientist and inventor of the genetic marker technique that they used to confirm the presence of the smallpox viruses, said that at first he was concerned that his past research was put in jeopardy by the discovery.

However, he said, there was no real harm to the Gerbeau Biobank’s programs and that he was grateful to the C.D.C. and the Biosecurity Institute at the University of Florida for testing out the virus-screening method on his mice.

“All I want is that the institutions associated with the Gerbeau Biobank can continue their work,” Zenn said. “These are fantastic people who worked so hard. I want them to continue.”

Cummings said that he will be holding the C.D.C.’s Director Brenda Fitzgerald, who resigned her position last month over a plagiarism scandal, responsible for the mistakes in determining the accuracy of the smallpox virus labs.

Ginsburg Discourages ‘Wild Imaginations’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to requests for comment.

Agency reviews during the last year were intended to provide a chance for all three layers of the response system to review and verify whether the smallpox samples had been verified.

After the initial review in February, the C.D.C. did not follow up on the sample findings. It reinstated an internal policy that allows the rulemaking agency to authorize investigations once certain conditions have been met, the report says.

The C.D.C. “has not had a consistent procedure on this one. Not only does it make it difficult for us to verify the results of third-party investigations,” the report says, “but it also encourages ‘wild imaginations’ which undermine the credibility of third-party verification.�

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