UPDATE: In an email to staff Friday afternoon, CDC Director Thomas Frieden revealed that the number of staffers who may have been exposed to anthrax had risen to 80. As of yet, no employees have tested positive for anthrax. Frieden also addressed the delay in the CDC’s announcement about the exposure, which was broken by the media. “In the process of gathering information in order to be accurate, and in our priority to reach out to affected staff, we waited too long to inform the broader CDC workforce.” The laboratory in which the incident took place has been closed until further notice.
News that 75 government scientists had been exposed to anthrax in Atlanta sent shivers up the spine of the science world Thursday.
In an email to staff at 5:28 p.m. ET, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thomas Frieden addressed the rumors, writing, “Unfortunately, there was a laboratory incident on the Roybal campus. Established procedures were not followed, leading to the potential exposure for some CDC staff. We took immediate steps to eliminate the risk of additional exposure, and anyone who may have been exposed is being contacted. The affected areas were the Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology laboratory (Building 18), the Biotechnology Core Facility (Building 23), and the Special Bacteriology Reference Laboratory (Building 17).”
He continued that there is no public risk at this time.
The email in its entirety is published at the end of this post.
Anthrax, or Bacillus anthracis, is spore-forming bacteria found in soil that most commonly affects cattle. In humans, it has been show to have a 50 to 90 percent mortality rate. Exposure to the bacteria can happen in a variety of ways, leading to five different types of infections: cutaneous (skin), injectional (blood), gastrointestinal (throat or stomach), meningeal (brain), and inhalation (lungs). As a result of the small size of the spores, anthrax is virtually impossible to see, smell, or taste.
Inhalation anthrax, one of the most difficult to treat, does not carry a definitive time frame. In some patients, symptoms can lie dormant anywhere from seven days to eight weeks. As of Thursday, six days after the incident allegedly occurred, the CDC is still keeping watch. "No employee has shown any symptoms of anthrax illness," Dr. Paul Meechan, director of the environmental health and safety compliance office at the CDC, told Reuters Thursday afternoon.
A closer look at the CDC’s website sheds additional light on the agency’s current dealings with anthrax. Last week, it launched an initiative titled Anthrax and Antibiotics to spread awareness about the dangers of the infection—likely a response to rumors that anthrax-infused heroin may be the new pawn of bioterrorists.
The video begins by running through the “very scary” scenario of an outbreak. “Anthrax could be released in a city, quietly, without anyone knowing,” the narrator says. The clip then continues by explaining how, through the use of moving images, the infection occurs—namely, by sending toxins through the body that attack it.
The CDC has reportedly put all of the employees on a course of antibiotic treatment—and is, one assumes, giving them their own advice from the end of the video: “Take the antibiotics you are given. Keep taking them. Follow the instructions given to you by health officials.”
The health, safety, and well-being of you and your family is our highest priority.
Unfortunately, there was a laboratory incident on the Roybal campus. Established procedures were not followed, leading to the potential exposure for some CDC staff. We took immediate steps to eliminate the risk of additional exposure, and anyone who may have been exposed is being contacted. The affected areas were the Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology laboratory (Building 18), the Biotechnology Core Facility (Building 23), and the Special Bacteriology Reference Laboratory (Building 17).
Based on the investigation to date, CDC believes that other CDC staff, family members, and the general public are not at any risk and do not need to take any protective action. Out of an abundance of caution, we are reaching out to all staff who may have entered these laboratories from June 6 – 13, 2014. The CDC Occupational Health Clinic is providing counseling, evaluations, and medication as necessary.
We are committed to the health and safety of CDC employees and the public, and always try to take the appropriate steps necessary to address these incidents when they occur. If you are aware of any circumstances in which you feel that we can increase staff safety in our laboratories or elsewhere, please discuss this with your leadership or contact the CDC Safety Help Desk.
This statement is now posted on the CDC website. We will share more information as it becomes available.
Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPHDirector, CDC, and Administrator, ATSDR