This past week, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that as many as 84 staffers might have been exposed to live anthrax. Even though the situation has already been dealt with properly, the CDC announced that it is reassigning the director at fault for the anthrax scare. As the agency continues to investigate the incident, it will reassign Michael Farrell, who was the head of the CDC’s Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology laboratory.
According to the officials, lab workers had transferred live Bacillus anthracis, which were supposed to be inactivated and properly stored in tubes from the bioterror lab to two lower-security labs. The workers in the two lower-security labs handled the bacteria without any protective gear.
Reuters broke the news when two CDC workers, who are not authorized to speak to the press informed the international news agency of the reassignment. The agency was exploring novel methods of detecting and eradicating anthrax using chemical methods as opposed to radiation-based techniques. Samples of the deadly bacteria were dispatched to two CDC labs that did not possess the necessary protective gear to handle active strains of anthrax. These labs are said to have agitated the closed containers of anthrax before opening them.
Anthrax is a bacterial infection that affects the skin, gastrointestinal tract or lungs. There are two forms of anthrax known as cutaneous anthrax and inhalation anthrax. Cutaneous anthrax is characterized by symptoms such as blisters, bumps and painless skin sores. Symptoms of inhalation anthrax are fever, chills, shortness of breath, cough, headaches, nausea, vomiting and more. Anthrax can be extremely fatal if it is left undetected and untreated.
Though the risk for infection is very low, the potentially exposed workers were given an anthrax vaccine and antibiotics.
The mistake was identified on June 13 when CDC researchers found colonies of live B anthracis on plates they were prepping for disposal. The finding shocked researchers working in the lower-security labs who had been expecting samples containing an inactive form of anthrax.
It is estimated that around 84 CDC employees may have been exposed to the bacteria at the Atlanta laboratories, many of whom are now being offered vaccines and antibiotics as a precautionary measure.
Speaking to NBC News, CDC deputy director Dr. Ileana Arias said that “we wish we knew exactly how the exposure may have occurred and defended the CDC. Any lab has incidents and in every situation we have been very diligent and aggressive in identifying what caused those breaches, what caused those problems.”
The FBI is aware of the incident and coordinating with officials at the CDC as they investigate, said FBI spokesman Christopher Allen.
“It is CDC’s obligation to ensure that people feel safe and are safe in the workplace and the community as we conduct our life saving laboratory work. We will report findings of this investigation and all steps we take to improve lab safety processes as a result of this incident,” the agency’s statement said.
All of the exposed CDC staffers have been treated with antibiotics as a precautionary measure.