Upwards of 75 scientists working on the more dangerous and often lethal strain of anthrax at the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) may have been exposed when the infectious samples sent to its Georgia laboratories not sufficiently equipped to handle dangerous pathogens, a spokesman for the federal health agency said Thursday.
The Atlanta-based agency is trying to develop new ways to kill anthrax, which it discovered did not work as it originally anticipated .
Despite the fact that none of the potentially infected scientists have any symptoms, but a number of them are undergoing precautionary measures and treatment.
“Out of an abundance of caution, CDC is taking aggressive steps to protect the health of all involved, including protective courses of antibiotics for potentially exposed staff,” spokesman Tom Skinner said in a statement. “Based on most of the potential exposure scenarios, the risk of infection is very low.”
According to the CDC, the potential exposure occurred after researchers working in a high-level biosecurity laboratory at the agency’s Atlanta campus failed to follow proper procedures to inactivate the bacteria. Because they believed they had killed the anthrax, they then transferred the samples to lower-security CDC labs not equipped to handle live anthrax. The workers in the lower-security labs believed did not wear adequate protective equipment because the believe the anthrax was inactivated.
It added in a statement that procedures used in two of those laboratories in Atlanta, where the C.D.C. is based, may have “aerosolized the spores,” essentially blowing the bacteria into the air. The exposure was discovered June 13, when the bacterial plates were collected for disposal and live B. anthracis colonies, or anthrax bacteria, were found.
Anthrax infects humans by touch, by inhalation or by consuming it. The inhaled form is the most dangerous, and among the 18 such cases identified in the United States during the 20th century, the fatality rate was around 75 percent, according to the C.D.C.’s website. After the terrorist attack in fall 2001 in which B. anthracis spores were released through the mail, five of the 11 people who were ill died.
The incubation period for anthrax is usually more than two weeks, so it is possible the scientists could still come down with symptoms. The incubation period can sometimes take months, according to the agency’s website.