“Leadership commitment toward safety has been inconsistent and insufficient at multiple levels”
ATLANTA––The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention during the third week of March 2015 quietly posted a highly critical report of itself by an outside panel of biosecurity and safety experts. The CDC at the same time issued a public statement accepting 20 specific recommendations for improvement.
“Leadership commitment toward safety has been inconsistent and insufficient at multiple levels,” the report opened. “Safety, including lab safety, is viewed by many as something separate from and outside the primary missions of public health and research. Safety is not integrated into strategic planning and is not currently part of the CDC culture.”
The report may have considerable implications for animal welfare, both within the CDC laboratories and––albeit indirectly––for the views attributed to the CDC by advocates for pit bulls and against neuter/return of feral cats.
“We are very concerned that the CDC is on the way to losing credibility,” the outside biosafety experts wrote. “The CDC must not see itself as ‘special’. The internal controls and rules that the rest of the world works under also apply to CDC.”
Dated January 13, 2015, the report was released to media and the public two months later, after several more of a long series of biosecurity and laboratory safety issues came to light.
The expert panel began their investigation in August 2014, and “did the bulk of its assessment at CDC in August and September,” said the CDC in an accompanying statement. “So the report reflects the observations of the work group made several months ago.”
But the deficiencies that the expert panel discovered were found after CDC Director Tom Frieden testified to Congress in July 2104 that he had already tightened procedures to improve laboratory safety.
Anthrax, bird flu, & Ebola
The panel was appointed, recalled Alison Young of USA Today, “as advisers in the wake of high-profile accidents. An anthrax incident in June 2014 potentially exposed dozens of CDC employees. Another incident in early 2014 involved sending a biological specimen to another federal laboratory that had been unknowingly cross-contaminated with a lethal strain of avian influenza.”
On December 22, 2014, Young continued, “the CDC experienced a mix-up with specimens of the deadly Ebola virus that resulted in the potential exposure of a lab worker who had to undergo 21 days of monitoring during the holidays.” Luckily, “The worker was never sickened, and the agency’s internal investigation determined there may have been no live virus in the specimens after all.”
Attitudes worst among MA holders
The expert panel reported that risk assessments of proposed research “are either not being done in a standardized manner or are not being done at all”; “laboratory safety training is inadequate,” and “quality is not consistent”; “Leadership commitment toward safety has been inconsistent and insufficient at multiple levels”; and “Disturbingly, the negative responses peak among those individuals who work at Biosecurity Levels 3 and 4,” the highest levels, and are worst “among those holding a master’s degree.”
Further, the expert panel found, “a significant percentage of CDC staff have concerns about experiencing negative repercussions, either personally or more generally to the agency, as a result of reporting incidents.”
The lab safety issues at the CDC are scarcely of recent origin. “In 2005,” remembered Andrew Martin of Bloomberg Business Week, “the CDC was put on probation by the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International because of problems with its oversight of laboratory animals.”
But the probationary period did not bring lasting reform.
Continued Martin, “Internal documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that a research scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been accused of going rogue and injecting primates with two unapproved and potentially deadly viruses, West Caucasian bat virus and Lagos bat virus. Worse, the scientist allegedly failed to explicitly inform his staff about the heightened dangers posed by the viruses, including the possibility of ‘an untreatable and fatal laboratory-acquired infection,’ the documents show. The violations occurred sometime ‘between 2006 and 2009,’ although the CDC says it only learned about them in 2012.”
CDC spokesperson Barbara Reynolds told Martin that the alleged violations were “horribly egregious,” but did not name the alleged offender.
The research scientist involved was at last identified through Freedom of Information Act requests filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in connection with what initially appeared to be an unrelated case.
Posted PETA on September 15, 2014: “According to an employee whistleblower report—which PETA confirmed by obtaining federal documents—two sick monkeys who were slated to be used in infectious disease experiments at the CDC were placed under intensely hot heat lamps and heating pads for hours. Because the experiment wasn’t properly monitored, the monkeys sustained major third-degree burns on their arms and backs. The monkeys’ burns were so severe that their skin had peeled off and muscle was sloughing off their bones. Laboratory staffers even talked about amputating the arm of one of the monkeys.
“But that’s not all,” PETA continued. “While verifying the burn incident, PETA uncovered federal records revealing that Charles Rupprecht, then-chief of the CDC’s rabies program, knowingly injected monkeys with a strain of rabies that the animal handlers weren’t inoculated against and didn’t inform the staff. Rupprecht resigned upon learning that he was about to be asked to step down from his position and banned permanently from access to all CDC animal laboratories.”
Ross University, in Basseterre, St. Kitts, on December 11, 2013 announced that Rupprecht, “an internationally recognized expert on rabies and one of the founders of the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, has joined the faculty of Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine as a professor of epidemiology and public health.”
But that appointment lasted less than ten months.
Updated Lindsay Pollard-Post of PETA, on September 26, 2014, “A week after PETA exposed noncompliant infectious disease experiments on monkeys at the CDC that caused animals massive suffering and endangered human health, Charles Rupprecht, the former chief of the CDC’s rabies program who led the cruel experiments—and was banned from the CDC’s animal laboratories because of it—was forced to resign from Ross University.”
Wrote Martin, “Noting that allegations against him weren’t brought until years after the fact, Rupprecht said he was targeted by a colleague who was worried about being dismissed and by a boss against whom he had filed complaints; he declined to name either. Rupprecht further alleged, according to Martin, “that other investigators had done similar experiments ‘under similar conditions without any impact from a biosafety standpoint.’”
Rupprecht, a once perhaps reluctant “rock star” among both animal advocates and epidemiologists, rose to fame after developing the Raboral oral rabies vaccine that stopped the mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic of 1976-1992 and stopped a rabies outbreak among coyotes in Texas in 1998.
Rupprecht later directed the CDC programs that helped to eradicate canine rabies from the U.S. by 2004.
“We don’t want to misconstrue that rabies has been eliminated, but dog rabies virus has been,” Rupprecht told media then. “Even though we still live in a sea of rabies and even though we have rabies viruses circulating among raccoons and foxes and bats, the dog rabies virus, which is the most responsible for dog-to-dog transmission and which is still the greatest burden to humans, has been eliminated.”
Though Rupprecht has often done animal experiments, and works with genetically engineered organisms in connection with vaccine development, he was celebrated in animal advocacy circles because deploying Raboral to eradicate rabies through vaccination proved vastly more practical and cost-effective than trying to reduce the numbers of animals at risk by doing catch-and-kill, and took away a leading pretext for hunting and trapping.
Rupprecht may have reached the peak of his popularity within the humane community in August 1995, when he warned that hunters illegally translocating coyotes from Texas to be hounded in chase pens in the Carolinas could cause rabies outbreaks, “the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s.”
Dog attack data
Rightly or wrongly, Rupprecht has also been identified with a turn by the CDC away from tracking dog bite data except in connection with rabies. In particular, the CDC quit logging dog bite data by breed, after reporting in 2000 that pit bulls, pit mixes, and Rottweilers had together accounted for 48% of the dog attack deaths in the preceding 20 years.
Summarized Daxton’s Friends founder Jeff Borchardt in a February 14, 2014 open letter to Wisconsin 1st Congressional District Representative Paul Ryan, “The CDC tracks every kind of death, with the exception of canine-related. They did track these types of deaths, but suddenly stopped in 1998. I cannot come to a logical conclusion as to why. My only thought is that animal activists put pressure on them to stop. I am consistently told by animal activists that the CDC does not track canine related deaths because they are so rare,” albeit about 10 times more common than human deaths from rabies in the U.S., “and that dog breeds are not a factor when it comes to fatalities,” even though this contradicts the previous CDC finding, and even though dog attack fatalities per year have quadrupled, while the percentage inflicted by pit bulls, pit mixes, and Rottweilers has risen to more than 80%.
Borchardt’s 14-month-old son Daxton was killed by two pit bulls on March 6, 2013.
Recommended feral cat purge
Meanwhile, just before Rupprecht left the CDC, he was identified by Zoonosis & Public Health as senior author of a paper entitled “Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release Programmes.” The study recommended that feral cats should be aggressively exterminated.
The paper included egregious factual errors detailed by Vox Felina blogger Peter Wolf in an August 3, 2013 posting entitled “CDC doing the American Bird Conservancy’s bidding.”
Among them, Wolf wrote, were “Echoing unsubstantiated claims made in 2013 by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service”; misrepresenting the findings from a study of 103 feral cat colonies in Rome, Italy, which found, Wolf summarized, “a 22% decrease overall in the number of cats through neuter/return—despite a 21% rate of “cat immigration”; and misrepresenting several other compilations of data, including several studies which found that the feline diseases FIV and FeLV occur no more often among feral cats than among cats with homes.
Three months later, on November 5, 2013, DC Cat Health Examiner blogger Marc Selinger revealed that according to CDC spokesperson Benjamin Haynes, “A controversial study on feral cats that seemed to have the imprimatur of being a product of the CDC was actually ‘conducted by university students (the two lead authors), so there was no cost to CDC. A.D. Roebling and D. Johnson are the students.’”
Continued Selinger, “An abstract indicates the journal article was written by seven people: five representatives of the CDC, one representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the head of the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy,” George Fenwick, “a longtime advocate of feral cat extermination. Many news accounts portrayed the report as a ‘CDC study.’ But it turns out that two of the so-called CDC representatives––A.D. Roebling and D. Johnson––actually are students at an unidentified university, and they are the pair who did the study. It was unclear why the students were listed as CDC representatives or who sponsored their research. Attempts to obtain more information from the CDC, the students and the journal were not immediately successful.”
E-mailed ANIMALS 24-7 to Rupprecht, who had often been an informative source in the past, “You were identified by Zoonosis & Public Health as senior author of ‘Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release Programmes.’ Now CDC spokesperson Benjamin Haynes has told DC Cat Health Examiner writer Marc Selinger that you did not do the research and were not the author. What’s going on here?”
Responded Rupprecht, “Good question! Never met B. Haynes. Suggest you inquire from that agency [the CDC] as to what they actually mean and what is going on there now.”