CDC hires official to address lab safety

Priorities include best practices to prevent lapses

- Alison Young

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hired a permanent top official to oversee laboratory safety at the agency, more than a year after a string of high-profile lab incidents with anthrax, Ebola and avian influenza started becoming public.

Stephan Monroe, who has been the CDC’s acting associate director for laboratory science and safety since May, is being permanentl­y appointed to the position, the agency said Tuesday.

Monroe was deputy director of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases and has served in a variety of leadership positions during 28 years at the Atlantabas­ed agency.

Monroe said his top priorities include looking for patterns in lab safety incidents and identifyin­g best biosafety practices and promoting their use across the agency’s more than 150 labs, which are primarily located in Atlanta and Fort Collins, Colo.

“What was clear from the pre- vious incidents is that we were responding to incidents one at a time and not seeing that there tended to be a pattern,” Monroe said. “Because of the work that CDC does and the work that goes on in our laboratori­es, there will always be some measure of risk. Our focus is on eliminatin­g risk where we can.”

Lab safety has been under scrutiny at the CDC and other federal labs because of several high-profile incidents in the past year — including an Army lab mistakenly shipping live anthrax, instead of killed specimens, to unsuspecti­ng researcher­s for more than a decade. An ongoing USA TODAY Media Network investigat­ion has revealed numerous issues at government, university and private labs across the country and prompted increased scrutiny by Congress.

In July 2014, CDC Director Tom Frieden announced he was appointing a top lab safety official — reporting directly to him — to become a “single point of accountabi­lity” and establish and enforce agency-wide biosafety policies. Since then, the agency has had three different employees serve as an interim top lab safety official.

“This appointmen­t is long overdue as the situation has only gotten worse,” said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has held two recent hearings on lab safety problems.

To identify emerging safety patterns at the CDC, the agency’s lab workers need to report all incidents. Monroe said he recognizes the challenges he faces in this area.

This year, a group of outside lab safety experts, appointed by the agency, warned that a significan­t percentage of CDC staff have concerns that they will face negative repercussi­ons for reporting lab incidents.

“It’s not an easy task to change culture,” Monroe said, but he added that he sees progress.

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