June 25, 2008 — -- At the government's $214 million infectious disease laboratory in Atlanta, scientists are experimenting with dangerous bacteria in a room where the door has been sealed with duct tape for over a year.
The tape was attached to the door when the laboratory was shut down for decontamination last May after the building's ventilation system malfunctioned and nine workers were tested for potential exposure to the Q fever bacteria.
Q fever, which has been studied at the lab and causes fatal heart problems, is considered a possible bioterror agent because it is easy to spread via contaminated animal waste.
None of the workers were infected, says Centers for Disease Control spokesman Tom Skinner, who emphasized that the incident happened in the middle of the night, there were no specimens of bacteria in the lab at the time and that the ventilation system has worked properly since then.
Duct tape is used to seal other doors in the facility during decontamination, says Skinner who adds that the procedure adheres to biosafety standards.
"We did not take the duct tape off the door, we probably could have," says Skinner. "We will be replacing that door with a different door later this year to further enhance safety."
Biosafety watchdogs questioned the safety of the procedure.
"That's shoddy," says Edward Hammond, a researcher who studies biosafety issues. "And this is the organization that's supposed to be setting the standard for what everyone else is doing?"
Hammond claimed that the use of duct tape doesn't appear to conform to the CDC's own biosafety standards manual, which states that "Seams, if present, must be sealed."
Another biosafety expert, microbiologist Richard Ebright, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I do not believe the CDC would approve this arrangement in a laboratory other than their own."
The issue has been investigated by the Government Accountability Office in two recent reports on the safety of high-containment biosafety labs where scientists study some of the world's most dangerous infectious disease agents such as Ebola, smallpox and avian influenza.
"Because they are intended to contain dangerous microorganisms, usually in liquid or aerosol form, even minor structural defects — such as cracks in the wall, leaky pipes, or improper sealing around doors — can have severe consequences," said Nancy Kingsbury, the GAO's managing director of applied research and methods, in written testimony to Congress last month, reports the Journal-Constitution.