CDC Runs into Problems Tracking Samples – A Digital Inventory Management System Could Help

Lab Safety

Without a simple and easy to use laboratory tracking system, it is easy to lose chemicals, biological samples or other inventory within a laboratory. Unfortunately, due to a poorly designed tracking system, the Center for Disease and Control (CDC) learned this the hard way, and the results were nearly catastrophic. Incidents such as this highlight how important it is to have an efficient and reliable inventory management system in place for tracking samples, specimens, chemicals, and other valuable items.

According to recent articles, the CDC first realized they had a breakdown in their sample tracking in June, when they were forced to locate some missing anthrax containers after a possible exposure occurred. According to a report about the incident, the containers were found to be “stored in unlocked refrigerators in an unregistered hallway.” Thankfully, nobody was exposed due to this oversight.

Another misplaced sample could have been even more devastating. On July 1, workers at a Maryland FDA laboratory discovered six vials labeled with the word “variola” in an unused corner of a storage room. Upon further inspection, the workers realized that “variola” was the scientific name for smallpox and immediately contacted the Division of Select Agents and Toxins for proper handling. Testing confirmed that the samples were indeed smallpox, a disease that could potentially devastate the human population if not handled appropriately.

Sample tracking can be difficult unless you implement a CMS
Small containers within the laboratory can further complicate the tracking of chemicals and samples.
Image courtesy of Diane A. Reid via Wikimedia Commons

This recent string of events caused Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the head of the CDC, to admit that the organization may have a “lax culture” when it comes to properly handling and tracking specimens. The end result of the investigation into this incident and others is that the CDC is now in the process of reviewing internal procedures and controls to ensure that their system for tracking samples is secure.

For any laboratory that is running into problems tracking samples or other items, it might be time to consider implementing a digital inventory management system. By implementing such a system, organizations would gain the following sample tracking benefits:

Container Content Tracking

Luckily, the workers who discovered the vials labeled “variola” recognized the term and did not attempt to personally investigate them further. However, if the vials had been labeled with a barcode and recorded within a digital inventory management system, even less knowledgeable workers could have been immediately informed of the vials’ contents.

With a digital inventory management system, barcode tracking simplifies the process of labeling and storing containers by storing key information about a sample or a chemical within a database. This method allows for instant access to pertinent information through a barcode reader or even a mobile device. The process includes tagging each container with a barcode, and then recording key information points like biological criteria or other attributes within the database.

If a digital inventory management system had been in place at the CDC, workers would have quickly been able to identify the contents of a container and access any relevant hazardous information through the barcode system, perhaps avoiding any embarrassing situations.

Location Tracking

Based on reports, it seems that the CDC and FDA laboratories had difficulty tracking the specific location where a container was stored. In the case of the missing anthrax, the containers were found in an unregistered hallway. The smallpox vials were also apparently stored in the corner of the wrong storage room.

The location tagging functionality found within a digital inventory management system would substantially improve a laboratory’s ability to track where samples are stored. As previously mentioned, a digital inventory management system tags each vial with a barcode. Because the actual details of the location are stored within a database and accessible through a simple scan, researchers can easily become apprised of location information, including storage room, freezer location, and other attributes.

Laboratory Inventory

Both of the recent incidents illustrate that even some top laboratories have not yet implemented reliable material tracking systems to follow inventory as it moves between and among locations. A digital inventory management system would enhance a laboratory’s ability to track samples by providing management with detailed reports about both the content and location of each sample. Inventory reports could be run by storage location or by sample type, depending upon on the needs of the manager.

Best Practice Solutions 

Gratefully, nobody was harmed as a result of the misplacement of samples, both at the CDC and Maryland FDA laboratories. In addition, it appears that the managers are taking the steps necessary to secure samples as they travel throughout the laboratory. Adopting a digital inventory management system, which would allow them to track details about the contents of each vial, identify location and easily run reports, is their best bet in making sure nothing like this happens in the future.

If your laboratory is ready to implement a digital inventory system to easily track samples, chemicals and other important items, please visit the Accelrys website to learn about Accelrys CISPro.

2 thoughts on “CDC Runs into Problems Tracking Samples – A Digital Inventory Management System Could Help

  1. It is sad that the CDC is making these times of elementary errors given their strong need to protect the public. Container tracking is elementary and especially important given how virulent many of their containers are. Hopefully they will use a system to get things under control.

  2. Kirk, thanks for the response. The CDC does have such an important role to play and should set the standard in laboratory management.

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