The CDC has reassigned the director of the level 3 containment laboratory where an error allowed the release of live anthrax.
The staffer has been “placed on a detail,” a CDC spokesman told MedPage Today — the agency’s way of saying he has been given other duties while an investigation into the incident is underway.
Reuters news agency identified the staffer as Michael Farrell, PhD, who was responsible for the agency’s Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory. The CDC is not confirming that identification, according to Benjamin Haynes, a senior press officer.
The CDC investigation into the release, which saw 84 workers potentially exposed to live Bacillus anthracis, is continuing, Haynes said, under the direction of Harold Jaffe, MD, the agency’s associate director for science.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Health Inspection Service will conduct its own separate investigation into the incident, since anthrax is regarded as an animal pathogen.
Many of the 84 possible exposed workers are being treated with antibiotics or anthrax vaccine, but so far none has displayed any symptoms.
“When this sort of thing happens, it is treated just like an accidental release or an epidemic in the community,” commented Robert Amler, MD, of New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y.
“First of all [you] establish as wide as possible a perimeter around what may have happened so that you catch every possible exposure,” said Amler, a CDC veteran who was involved in the response to the 2001-2002 anthrax terror attacks.
“Then you begin testing [exposed people] and also giving them any sort of intervention that would help either to prevent getting the disease or if they did get the disease, to make it a milder case,” he told MedPage Today.
Exactly how big an exposure to anthrax is not an exact science, he said. “I would love to be able to quantify this, but it’s something that’s difficult to put an exact number on,” he said.
The number of infective particles is important, he said, but so is the route into the body and the immune status of the exposed person.
“That’s why the responsible action is to assume that everyone … has a credible exposure and one that has to be taken seriously,” he said. “But just because there’s a breach in the way things are supposed to be handled … does not mean automatically that people are going to get sick.”
Amler said his immediate reaction to the news was twofold. On one hand, he said, “you always feel bad when something like this happens … you do not want your workers to get exposures.”
On the other hand, “I figured that if anyone knows how to handle the possibly exposed employees, it’s going to be the CDC.”
The name anthrax comes from the Greek word for coal, and the pathogen is named after its signature skin lesion — a coal-black necrosis. “It’s quite a striking skin lesion,” Amler said.
There is also a gastrointestinal form of the disease, which is rare.
But the most concerning form of the illness occurs when spores are inhaled, become active bacteria, and begin to multiply, releasing toxins. The initial symptoms are similar to those of a cold or flu, but they are followed by pneumonia and severe respiratory distress that is often fatal.