As many as 75 scientists working in U.S. federal government laboratories in Atlanta may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria and are being offered treatment to prevent infection, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Thursday.
The possible exposure occurred when researchers working in a high-level biosecurity laboratory at the agency's Atlanta campus failed to follow proper procedures to inactivate the bacteria. They then transferred the samples, which may have contained live bacteria, to lower-security CDC labs not equipped to handle live anthrax.
Dr. Paul Meechan, director of the environmental health and safety compliance office at the CDC, said the agency discovered the potential exposure on the evening of Friday, June 13, and immediately began contacting individuals working in the labs who may have unknowingly handled live anthrax bacteria.
"No employee has shown any symptoms of anthrax illness," Meechan told Reuters.
Meechan said the normal incubation period can take up to seven days, though there are documented cases of the illness occurring some 60 days after exposure.
Meechan said as many as seven researchers may have come into direct contact with the live anthrax. But 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.
About 75 individuals are being offered a 60-day course of treatment with the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, as well as an injection with an anthrax vaccine.
Meechan said it is too early to determine whether the transfer was accidental or intentional. He said that all employees who were conducting procedures to inactivate the bacteria were working in a biosecurity laboratory and were "tier one select agent approved," meaning they had undergone a security reliability review and deemed to be "stable, trustworthy individuals."
Meechan said that the CDC is conducting an internal investigation to discover how the exposure occurred, and that disciplinary measures would be taken if warranted.
"This should not have happened," he said. "We're taking care of it. We will not let our people be at risk."
Anthrax is a potentially deadly infectious disease caused by exposure to the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. it most commonly affects hoofed animals such as goats, but people who come in contact with the spores can also become infected.
Infection can occur through a cut in the skin, breathing in anthrax spores or eating tainted meat.
Meechan said CDC workers in the lower-security labs were likely not wearing masks, which would have prevented inhalation of the spores.
In inhalation anthrax, bacterial spores enter the lungs where they germinate before actually causing disease, a process that can take one to six days. Once they germinate, they release toxins that can cause internal bleeding, swelling and tissue death.
Inhalation anthrax occurs in two stages. In the first stage, symptoms resemble a cold or the flu. In the second stage, anthrax causes fever, severe shortness of breath and shock.
About 90 percent of people with second stage inhalation anthrax die, even after antibiotic treatment.
The FBI is working with the CDC to examine the potential exposure, but has found no evidence of wrongdoing, a spokesman for the agency said.
"We're aware of it and working with CDC," FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said in an email. "Nothing leads us to believe it's anything criminal at this point."