Reuters broke the story of a security lapse at the Atlanta CDC facility. 80+ people may have been exposed to a particularly potent strain of anthrax. They also hint that this isn’t the facility’s first lapse…which is quite true. Lapses in 2009 and 2012 were also uncovered.
What is anthrax? This disease has been around a long time. It is mostly a livestock problem, though humans can catch it. This isn’t easy to do, especially in the U.S. Cattle are routinely vaccinated against it.
This disease is spread by spores. The spores have to be inhaled, ingested or rubbed into broken skin. Until biological warfare worked with it, the probability of catching it was very low…especially with most U.S. cattle being vaccinated against it.
The Ames Variant: A cow in Ames, Iowa died from this disease. The strain was found in 1928 and kept at Iowa State University. This variant was mostly destroyed by the university after a bioterror attack involving at least one U.S. Senator. However, it’s such a hot virus it has been the favorite for bioterror and the prevention of it.
Changing the Bacterium: The big problem with using anthrax as a weapon is that it clumps. It’s hard to get a large number of people to inhale enough particles to cause problems. It had to be changed so it didn’t clump…and it was.
What were the lapses? The 6/2014 lapse was sending hot Ames anthrax spores from a biocontainment laboratory to one that didn’t require respirators or other protective gear. Even then it wasn’t reported until Reuters got the information about the possibly infected lab workers.
Other lapses involved unlocked doors in sensitive areas and an unauthorized person near the Bio3 laboratory. These lapses probably didn’t allow anything untoward to be done because there are many more safety and security measures in place. It is unsettling, though.
The labs involved in this latest security lapse have been decontaminated and thus far none of the employees have developed signs of becoming ill. To be on the safe side, many were given strong antibiotics and/or an anthrax vaccine. It is also unlikely that they can spread the disease to others. Despite the bioterror warning, it’s not easy to catch anthrax via human to human vectors.
What this lapse does point out is the dangers of working with potentially deadly bacteria and viruses. The CDC and other labs have much more deadly…and easily transmittable…diseases to work with. Perhaps more caution would be advised.