The Corner

Government Failure with Potentially Deadly Consequences: The CDC Edition

Yet another example of government failure hit the newspapers this morning. After the many IRS scandals, the botched rollout of Obamacare back in October, and the VA’s disastrous handling of U.S. veterans’ health care, we find out that the Center for Disease Control cannot be trusted to secure the deadly viruses it has in its labs, nor can it be trusted to police its own employees working in said labs. The New York Times reports

There had been another accident, this one just as disturbing, if not more so — and no one in the agency’s top leadership had been informed about it until that Monday, though the C.D.C.’s lab had been told about it more than a month earlier.

C.D.C. workers had somehow shipped a dangerous strain of avian influenza to a poultry research lab run by the Department of Agriculture. Known as H5N1, the virus had killed more than half of the 650 people who had been infected with it since 2003. …

The agency’s internal investigation of the troubling events, made public Friday, found that senior staff members had failed to write up a plan for researchers to follow in the anthrax study. It also faulted scientists who neglected to review the existing literature before working with the deadly pathogen, and found that the agency was ill-prepared to respond to a potential exposure episode. …

The report recalled other errors. In 2006, the agency accidentally sent live anthrax to two other labs, and also shipped out live botulism bacteria.

Several experts on biosecurity noted that the inspector general’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services sent official complaints to the C.D.C. in 2008, 2009 and 2010 about undertrained lab personnel and improperly secured shipments.

You can read the details about the June anthrax accident and the many missteps that could have lead to deadly consequences here. Like with the VA scandal, CDC employees were slow to acknowledge their mistakes, which made a bad problem even worse. 

The near miss should have been reported immediately to top leadership, but was not. The flu lab heard from the Agriculture Department on May 23, but it was not reported to senior C.D.C. leadership until July 7.

Dr. Frieden said the delay shocked him because the agency’s flu lab is renowned in its field.

He and Dr. Bell said in interviews that the bioterror lab might have lax management and the flu lab might have workers who are afraid to speak out. Both problems are dangerous.

Here is my question: When are we going to recognize that these government failures aren’t isolated incidents? They are part of a trend that is the result of the terrible incentives that exist in government. (Brookings Institution’s Paul Light has a new report on precisely this topic.)

For the student of public-choice economics, that government fails is not a surprise. The lack of responsibility and accountability is to be expected when its programs continue to be funded regardless of whether they have been shown to work and whether their “customers” are happy or unhappy with their performance (when has a change of party led to the termination of a failed and inefficient government program?). I wrote about this here.

The story doesn’t tell us if any CDC employees will be terminated as a result of this failure. How many VA employees were sanctioned for that department’s scandal? How about the IRS? How long did it take for former HHS secretary Katherine Sebelius to leave after the disastrous Obamacare rollout? 

Sadly, as the government grows and it undertakes bigger projects, we should expect this trend to continue, even to accelerate. In the face of this evidence, what will it take for taxpayers to understand that all we can do to reduce the rate of government failure is to limit the scope and scale of government intervention?


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