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Walden and Murphy Urge NIH to Improve Reporting and Investigation of Pathogen Incidents

Jul 11, 2017
1995 NIH Investigation was Missed Opportunity for Earlier Discovery of Smallpox Vials

WASHINGTON, DC – Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-PA) today sent a letter to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) regarding a recently released Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel to Review the 2014 Smallpox (Variola) Virus Incident on the NIH Campus. The leaders noted that the report pointed out previous missed opportunities to discover vials of the smallpox virus.

The panel’s report is in response to the committee’s May 2016 letter, which stemmed from a #SubOversight hearing, requesting a report on lab incidents involving select agents. The committee has done extensive work regarding select agents, and lab safety and security.

“This report correctly points out that there were several missed opportunities to find the samples before 2014, specifically incidents involving select agents and toxins in NIH laboratories in 2008, 2011, and 2012,” write Chairmen Walden and Murphy. “We believe the record should reflect that another major missed opportunity to find the smallpox samples occurred in 1995.”

The leaders continued, “On September 23, 1995, The Washington Post reported that ‘NIH safety officers got an anonymous tip last week that a top-ranking person at the lab, in a casual conversation a couple of years ago, said there was smallpox in the freezers’ in the laboratory of Dr. Carlton Gajdusek, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who later went to jail in 1997 for child abuse. The tipster said the gist of the conversation was that smallpox virus was kept in a lab freezer used to store biological specimens. Dr. Gajdusek denied ever having the virus, but NIH safety officers checked every sample in the ‘working freezers’ in Dr. Gajdusek’s lab and found nothing labeled smallpox. A more comprehensive effort to account for any smallpox specimens in all cold storage rooms and freezers throughout NIH might have led to the discovery of the samples later found in 2014. Although the NIH search efforts did not find the smallpox samples in Dr. Gajdusek’s lab, it is a reasonable possibility that the tipster’s allegation in fact was referring to the smallpox samples eventually found in the Building 29A cold room in 2014. We also believe that either the tipster misunderstood the conversation, the NIH safety officers misunderstood part of the tipster’s allegations, or some combination of both.”

Because there is reason to believe that some individuals were aware of the smallpox vials but were hesitant to report, the committee leaders requested the NIH report on any actions or proposals that would improve reporting and investigation of improperly stored pathogens.

Click HERE to read a copy of the letter.