In the wake of a recent anthrax scare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has begun to take disciplinary action. At the head of the problem lies the CDC’s bioterror level three containment lab, and various sources have reported the director of the lab has been reassigned.
The employee is currently working “on a detail,” which is essentially a nice way of saying that the individual has been assigned different tasks pending the results of an investigation. Michael Farrell, Ph.D., was identified by Reuters as the individual, but the CDC has not confirmed that Farrell is the alleged guilty party.
The incident occurred due to a “breakdown in safety procedures causing 84 CDC staffers in Atlanta to be exposed to live Anthrax.” Benjamin Haynes, a CDC press officer, has reassured the public that most of the 84 staffers have already been treated with antibiotics by the CDC and the rest are being monitored. Some exposed staffers may have already been treated by their primary care provider.
Contrary to popular belief, anthrax illnesses are treatable with antibiotics and/or vaccine. In fact, anthrax is not viewed as a “transmissible disease,” according to Gregory Poland, MD, of the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn. Anthrax is spread by the creation of toxins within the body but is not a contagious disease in itself. Illness can quickly develop and prove fatal for a person left untreated.
According to the CDC, the error occurred “between the week of June 6 and June 13. The bioterrorism lab began executing new safety procedures. While transporting the Anthrax samples to another lab with less security, critical protocol errors were made in handling of the specimens.” CDC spokesman Tom Skinner stated that the main bioterrorism lab transferred the anthrax bacteria in tubes, but the subsequent lower security laboratories mishandled the samples when they “agitated” the specimens and were forced to open the tubes. This caused a fear that the bacteria became airborne, of which the most dangerous in this particular scenario would be airborne spores.
With the unconfirmed director reassigned, Dr. Paul Meechan, director of CDC Environmental Health, has stepped in to fill the vacant role. Meechan informed Reuters of the Anthrax exposure scare on Thursday, and a thorough investigation is still on going.
Thus far, a CDC review has confirmed that the “high-profile” bioterror lab was preparing the anthrax samples for a study involving the detection of new pathogens. Upon handling the bacteria, the lab did not do a sufficient job in deactivating the samples. When staff at other laboratories received the anthrax samples, they assumed the anthrax bacteria were inactive. Unbeknownst to those staffers, the anthrax spores became active. The major procedural breech identified was the fact that the lab was supposed to wait 48 hours to ensure the bacteria were inactive prior to transfer but instead waited just 24. Consequently, “live anthrax colonies were found on bacterial plates.”
Directing an anthrax scare can be a daunting task for a regulatory government-based organization like the CDC. Anthrax rose to prominence post Sept 11, 2001, after letters with the deadly bacteria were sent to members of Congress. At the time, the public and government feared the incident was related to the terrorist attacks. Later, the alleged culprit, Bruce Ivins, was discovered. Ivins was discovered after an investigation determined he committed suicide shortly before he learned that the FBI was on to him. The U.S. has since viewed Anthrax as a potential bioterrorism hazard, making any lax regulation regarding its handling a serious issue, a fact to which the reassigned director of the CDC is well aware.
By Brandon Wright