Lions, Tigers, & Bears or Anthrax, Smallpox, & Bird Flu

Today it was announced that the recently discovered smallpox vials contained viable virus that was infectious. This is not too unexpected given that these were freeze-dried specimens.

However, the other piece of news that accompanied this announcement was that, over the last decade, there were 5 lapses in which dangerous pathogens, including the H5N1 influenza virus, were sent improperly to other laboratories from the CDC. The revelation of these incidents has prompted CDC to cease operations at two labs and impose a "moratorium" on specimen shipping from some CDC labs. 

What strikes me as the most important part of the story, however, is the issue of the Select Agent Rules. After the anthrax attacks of 2001 there was a major effort by the US government to impose strict control on the laboratories doing work on certain pathogens that were particularly dangers (hence, select agents).

Many university laboratories, including the ones in my own institution, struggled to meet these requirements. I personally know of one tularemia researcher who had particular difficulty meeting all the regulatory requirements to receive a non-virulent strain of the bacterium.

This laxity by some government personnel gives the impression that although university labs work diligently to comply with such regulations, their government counterparts have not exerted the same level of diligence. The belief that a two-tiered system exists coupled with the lapses that have occurred is something that could harm the public's confidence in this vital research and potentially jeopardize it -- a scenario that is more dangerous than finding decades-old smallpox vials.