June 21, 2014
CDC Workers Exposed To Anthrax
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is one of those government agencies that is almost universally regarded as entirely competent and worthy of having the complete trust of the American public. This stellar reputation may, in fact, be wholly unwarranted.
It was reported Thursday that as many as 86 government scientists, researchers and employees were exposed to the potentially lethal live form of the bacterium anthrax, which was transported from CDC headquarters in Atlanta to several other laboratory sites around the agency. It all occurred when researchers working in a high-level biosecurity laboratory failed to inactivate the bacteria before sending it to three lower-level laboratories which were not equipped to handle the live anthrax.
As a result, several scientists and researchers were handling live anthrax without proper protective equipment and clothing. It was even reported that in one laboratory the anthrax was aerosolized, which may have highly increased the possibility of infection in the laboratory employees. This inhalation anthrax is one of the more insidious forms of the bacteria.
Upon entering the lungs, the bacterial spores germinate over the period of about a week before causing the disease. With germination complete, toxins are released into the host that cause internal bleeding, swelling and tissue death. Even with antibiotic treatment, 90 percent of individuals who move past first stage inhalation anthrax to second stage will die.
While the normal incubation period from exposure to infection typically takes between five and seven days, there have been documented cases where an individual does not begin suffering from symptoms of infection for as many as 60 days after exposure. Symptoms often mirror the onset of a cold or flu. If inaccurately diagnosed or left untreated, the outcome could likely be fatal.
This lapse in both security and protocol was first discovered on Friday, June 13. Dr. Paul Meechan, who serves as the director of environmental health and safety compliance for the CDC, stated all individuals who may have unknowingly handled the live anthrax were immediately notified. He informed Reuters that as many as seven researchers may have come in direct contact with the live bacteria but that the agency is casting as wide a net as possible to make sure all employees at the agency who may have walked into any of the labs at risk are being offered treatment.
"No employee has shown any symptoms of anthrax illness," Meechan told Reuters. Each of the identified persons have been offered a 60-day course of treatment with the antibiotic ciprofloxacin paired with an injection of the anthrax vaccine.
Despite all members of the high-level biosecurity laboratory being classified as “tier one select agent approved,” a security reliability designation meant to classify them as stable and trustworthy individuals, Meechan stated that it is still too early in the investigation of the event to determine if the transfer of live, lethal anthrax was accidental or intentional.
If this were a first instance lapse at the CDC, we could and should demand an investigation and feel confident, moving forward, that procedures and protocols would be amended to ensure a breach like this never happened again. Unfortunately, yesterday's announcement was but one more in a long string of breaches, mistakes and mishaps by the agency entrusted to hold stores of diseases like anthrax, monkey pox, ebola virus and several highly deadly strains of flu.
As reported in USA Today, they and government auditors had raised the alarm over several serious issues at CDC labs, including failures of airflow systems designed to prevent the release of infectious agents and not ensuring that those working with potential bioterror agents have had proper training.
"This new incident is not an isolated incident, but rather is part of a pattern," said Richard Ebright, a biosafety expert at Rutgers University. "Furthermore, this incident involved multiple safety violations in multiple CDC laboratories."
One particularly disturbing part of that pattern has to do with improper and even non-existent training for individuals tasked with handling potential bioterror agents. In 2010, CDC auditors could not verify training for 1/3 of sampled employees. The year before that, their report explained that more than half, 88 of 168 approved individuals, were not provided with biosafety and security training by the CDC labs before being turned lose to handle bioterror agents.
The issue surrounding a faulty airflow system, first reported in the USA Today in 2012, stemmed from the CDC's state-of-the-art $214 million lab building on their Atlanta campus. Apparently, the lab's airflow system repeatedly malfunctioned, even blowing potentially contaminated air outward from the lab into a “clean” corridor. According to a biosafety expert cited in USA Today's original story, these problems represented major violations of laboratory operating standards.
In light of this most recent mishap at the agency, the congressional committee responsible for oversight of the agency, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wants to investigate. The committee has already investigated the other major laboratory lapses at the CDC.
Committee Chairman Fred Upton, (R-MI) and the oversight subcommittee chairman, Tim Murphy, (R-PA) released a joint statement in light of this most recent event. “There is no room for error or negligence when it comes to bioterror research and every precaution must be taken to ensure the safety of our scientists,” the statement read. “The committee has been in contact with the CDC and will continue closely monitoring the situation.”
When asked if the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be looking into this latest event, Meechan declined to answer, instead referring the question to the FBI itself.