Anthrax Scare at CDC

Written by Brandon Withem

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC whom oversees all matters relating to disease prevention and study of exotic pathogens that has potential dangers to public health, released a public statement on June 18th, 2014 stating that about 80 staff members from the Atlanta site may have been exposed to the Anthrax pathogen sometime between June 6th and 13th. CDC does not believe that there is an immediate risk of exposure outside of the lab where the incident occurred. They, however, are taking "aggressive" precautions by inoculating the exposed staff members against the deadly pathogen.

Based on initial reports and assessments of the situation conducted by CDC, the staff members who handled the live strain of Bacillus anthracis did not follow proper procedures in ensuring the safety of handling and transporting such strains to a less safeguarded environment. The following is an explicit statement available online at CDC's press release.

"Early reports show that one of its Roybal campus biosafety level 3 (BSL3) labs was preparing B. anthracis samples for research in other CDC labs at lower biosafety levels to yield new means of detecting dangerous pathogens in environmental samples. However, the lab used a procedure that did not adequately inactivate the samples.

The potentially infectious samples were moved and used for experimentation in three CDC Roybal campus laboratories not equipped to handle live B. anthracis.  Workers, believing the samples were inactivated, were not wearing adequate personal protective equipment while handling the material." (CDC)

CDC has clear and established procedures in handling such dangerous substances. However, there was a failure in enforcing such policies in the most dangerous environment that has the potential of  releasing deadly substances to the general public. Fortunately, they caught it and prevented the situation from deteriorating.

In this case, the mandate is to follow a protocol that requires waiting 48 hours for the live strain to become dormant. However, a spokesperson for CDC stated on Thursday that the staff only waited 24 hours before testing the spore samples to see if they had grown. It showed no signs of growth at the time and they incorrectly assumed it was safe to transfer to a less protected environment. They also said that a more detailed investigation might reveal more serious problems.

CDC has acknowledged that safeguards are in place, however the staff did not follow proper procedures, and disciplinary action(s) will follow. They have already displaced the director of the Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Lab, pending the results of the investigation. No further information is currently available regarding the investigation. It is interesting to note that the acronym for the lab at the Roybal campus is BRRAT Lab.

According to Reuters, a Senate panel which oversees biomedical research and CDC has called into question CDC's continued breakdown in safety protocols and whether it needs to be addressed on a congressional level. They did so by asking CDC formally in a letter to the director of CDC, Dr. Tom Frieden, for an explanation of why such policies that are in place were not followed to the letter. A panelist, Michael Burgess who is a Republican representative, stated that this is a case that may rise to a congressional hearing in order to address this continued breakdown in protocols which violates national public health safety due to repeated incidents in the past, albeit they are unrelated. CDC has already stated they are turning over the investigation to the Department of Health and Agriculture to avoid a conflict of interest.