By Alison Young and Donna Leinwand Leger,http://www.usatoday.com
Dozens of CDC scientists and other workers are now taking antibiotics and anxiously watching for any signs of disease, even though the agency issued a statement saying the risk of infection is “very low.”
A team of investigators from the Federal Select Agent Program, which polices labs working with potential bioterror germs, was expected to arrive at the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters today or tomorrow, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said Monday. Their investigation and an internal CDC inquiry seek to find out how one of the world’s premier public health laboratories mistakenly sent live samples of the particularly deadly Ames strain of anthrax to other agency labs, where workers believed the bacteria had been deactivated.
The CDC said Thursday that it may take disciplinary action against any employee whose failure to follow biosafety protocols led to the potential exposure of more than 80 employees to the deadly microbe.
Skinner said the head of the CDC’s Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory had been “detailed to another job” pending completion of the agency’s review, but he said he could not confirm the employee’s name. Reuters, citing two CDC scientists who are not authorized to speak to the press, identified the employee is Michael Farrell.
Even with antibiotic treatment, anthrax has a fatality rate of 28% to 45%, depending on the type of exposure, according to information on the CDC’s website. It can take weeks or even months for symptoms to develop.
“There are a lot of people going through a lot of unnecessary anxious moments,” Skinner said. “Things like this shouldn’t happen. These are ‘never’ events. They should never happen. Period.”
Most of the staffers who are counted among possible exposures are scientists, lab technicians, administrative and maintenance staff who may have passed through areas where the live anthrax samples were handled without proper protective equipment and barriers, Skinner said.
About seven CDC scientists are at heightened risk because they had more direct exposure, he said. They would most likely have been vaccinated against anthrax previously because of their jobs. Now they’re taking antibiotics and would have been offered a booster vaccine, he said.
Some of this small group of scientists were involved in agitating or shaking test tubes of what they thought were deactivated anthrax spores, then lifting the tops off the tubes. That may have aerosolized the spores, creating the risk that these scientists inhaled some of the anthrax.
When working with live anthrax, scientists work in Biosafety Level 3 labs with safety equipment to prevent exposure. Live anthrax is supposed to be handled under negative air pressure in a special safety cabinet, and scientists wear personal breathing equipment.
But in the recent incident, because the scientists thought the spores were deactivated, the test tubes were opened in two Biosafety Level 2 labs with minimal protections, Skinner said. The scientists might have been wearing gloves, gowns and goggles, but they would not have been using a safety cabinet or a personal air supply. Read more