Deadly strains: Recent scares at bio labs are a cautionary tale

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In his 1995 bestseller “The Hot Zone,” Richard Preston chronicled in terrifying detail how a strain of the Ebola virus — the highly contagious virus now killing hundreds in Central Africa — made an appearance at a military lab near Washington, D.C.

Wearing bio-hazard suits, a clandestine SWAT unit worked to eradicate the virus on site before it could spread to the general population. Though it sounds like science fiction, it was not just a fanciful story. “The Hot Zone” was a true tale about how one of the most lethal diseases was a misstep away from wreaking havoc.

Fast-forward to 2014. The discovery July 1 of six vials of smallpox in a cardboard box at a National Institutes of Health research lab in Bethesda, Md., was an alarming reminder that the system for securing batches of harmful diseases is not foolproof. On Friday the Centers for Disease Control said tests showed that two of the vials contained live virus. All of the samples are to be destroyed.

The agency also announced that it had closed two CDC research labs in Atlanta because of staff members’ mishandling of anthrax samples and flu strains. Up to 75 CDC employees may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria.

The CDC’s reaction was appropriate in underscoring the need for greater safety. It also said it was temporarily stopping all transfers of samples from high-level biosafety labs and beefing up lab safety procedures.

Beyond that, staff at private and government labs who once worked on various biohazards should revisit old storage spaces for other forgotten batches that could cause “hot zones” when and where we least expect them.

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