CDC anthrax problem: Head of bioterror lab reassigned

Anthrax vegetative cells and spores are shown. More than 80 CDC staff members in Atlanta were potentially exposed to anthrax.
Anthrax vegetative cells and spores are shown. More than 80 CDC staff members in Atlanta were potentially exposed to anthrax.
(U.S. Department of Defense)

After a lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta might have exposed more than 80 CDC staff members to anthrax, the lab’s director has been temporarily reassigned, the agency confirmed.

The director of the Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory “has been temporarily detailed pending the results of the investigation” into the possible anthrax exposure, CDC spokesman Benjamin Haynes said in an email Monday. He would not reveal the director’s name.

The CDC’s internal investigation is expected to end in early July, and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture may conclude this week, he said.

A failure to follow established safety practices caused the possible exposure, the CDC said Thursday in a statement, adding that it believed the risk of infection was very low and that nobody else was at risk of exposure.


Eighty-four staffers are being monitored or given antibiotics after they were potentially exposed to anthrax, Haynes said Friday.

An initial CDC review showed the lab was preparing samples of Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax, for research seeking new ways to detect pathogens, but that the lab did not “adequately inactivate the samples” before sending them along, the agency said.

The protocol requires waiting 48 hours and then testing to see if spores have grown, but the lab waited only 24 hours, a CDC spokesman said Thursday. Further investigation might reveal more problems, he said.

Workers in the labs conducting the research, believing they were handling inactive Bacillus anthracis, were not wearing gear that would adequately protect them from the live bacteria, the CDC said.

The problem was discovered June 13 when live anthrax colonies were found on bacterial plates, the CDC said.

Anthrax can produce toxins in the body that cause severe illness or death, but it is not contagious, the agency said.

Anthrax became well-known to many Americans shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Anonymous anthrax letters mailed to members of Congress and the National Enquirer offices in Florida killed five people. The attack disrupted mail delivery and briefly paralyzed parts of the federal government.

Years later, federal investigators said that Bruce Ivins, a civilian microbiologist who had worked for the military, had acted alone to perpetrate the anthrax mailings. Ivins had killed himself eight days before the announcement.


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