Lab director behind anthrax mishap resigns

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WASHINGTON — The di­rec­tor of a U.S. gov­ern­ment bio­ter­ror lab that po­ten­tially ex­posed scores of work­ers to live an­thrax last month has re­signed, the Centers for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion said Wed­nes­day.

Mi­chael Far­rell, head of the CDC's Bio­ter­ror Rapid Re­sponse and Ad­vanced Tech­nol­ogy Lab­o­ra­tory, or BRRAT, in At­lanta, had been re­as­signed from his po­si­tion last month af­ter the agency dis­closed the safety breaches. He sub­mit­ted his res­ig­na­tion Tues­day, the CDC said.

“I can con­firm that he was the team lead for the BRRAT lab since 2009, and that he's re­signed from that po­si­tion,” said CDC spokes­man Tho­mas Skin­ner. He could not pro­vide fur­ther de­tails on Mr. Far­rell's de­par­ture, or whether ad­di­tional per­son­nel changes at the pub­lic health agency were im­mi­nent.

Mr. Far­rell could not be reached for com­ment. He was the first CDC em­ployee to leave his post over the in­ci­dent, in which more than 80 gov­ern­ment lab work­ers were po­ten­tially ex­posed to the dan­ger­ous bac­te­ria af­ter sam­ples that had not been prop­erly in­ac­ti­vated left the BRRAT lab in June.

No one has fallen ill as a re­sult of the in­ci­dent, and the CDC has con­cluded that there was min­i­mal, if any, ac­tual risk of ex­po­sure.

But the lapse prompted new scru­tiny into how the agency pro­tects the pub­lic from po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous re­search. The CDC di­rec­tor, Tho­mas Frie­den, has also pledged to change the cul­ture of safety among its staff. Dr. Frie­den has said the agency would con­sider dis­ci­plin­ary ac­tion against any staff mem­bers found to have know­ingly vi­o­lated safety pro­to­cols or to have failed to re­port breaches. Dr. Frie­den has ap­pointed a CDC sci­en­tist to a new role over­see­ing lab­o­ra­tory safety and said he ex­pects to an­nounce a new ad­vi­sory panel of in­de­pen­dent ex­perts this week.

Some biosafety ex­perts have urged the CDC to fo­cus on bet­ter train­ing its staff to iden­tify and re­spond to lapses more quickly, rather than cast blame for prob­lems that have re­peat­edly cropped up in its labs over the last de­cade.

“For [Mr. Far­rell] to re­sign as a re­sult of this is an in­di­ca­tor that they're fo­cus­ing on who in­stead of what. It was a cul­ture that led to this is­sue. It was not an in­di­vid­ual,” said for­mer CDC of­fi­cial Sean Kauf­man, a bi­ose­cu­rity ex­pert who is pres­i­dent and found­ing part­ner of the con­sul­tancy Be­hav­ioral-Based Im­prove­ment So­lu­tions. He tes­ti­fied about the lapses last week be­fore U.S. House law­mak­ers.

The bio­ter­ror lab was set up in 1999 as a cen­tral point of en­try for test­ing sam­ples sus­pected of con­tain­ing bi­o­log­i­cal agents. It de­vel­ops rapid test­ing meth­ods and pro­vides over­sight to a cor­re­spond­ing na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory Re­sponse Net­work, which links state and lo­cal pub­lic health lab­o­ra­to­ries de­signed to iden­tify po­ten­tial bio­ter­ror threats. Part of their mis­sion is help­ing lo­cal au­thor­i­ties de­tect bi­o­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal agents.

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