U.S. government scientists retrace events leading to anthrax breach
Send a link to a friend
[June 27, 2014]
By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Scientists at the U.S Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention are conducting tests to see whether
the procedure they followed to kill anthrax, although flawed by their
own standards, may nevertheless have killed the potentially deadly
pathogen before it was sent to less-secure laboratories, where employees
work without adequate protective gear.
If they are right, it may mean dozens of scientists and staff, who
were given a vaccine and powerful antibiotics to prevent anthrax
infection, may never actually have been in danger of anthrax
disease, a potentially deadly illness that was at the center of 2001
Researchers in the CDC's bioterrorism response lab are retracing the
events within the lab between June 6 and June 13 that led to the
possible exposure of 84 employees at the agency's Atlanta campus, an
agency official told Reuters.
New details about the agency's investigation suggest the anthrax
that was being inactivated in a high security lab may have been
sitting in a bath of acid for 24 hours before being transferred to
two lower-security labs.
What researchers are trying to find out is whether that was long
enough to kill the anthrax, Dr Paul Meechan, director of the CDC's
environmental health and safety compliance office, told Reuters in a
"We don't know that, but we're doing experiments to prove it," said
Meechan. The CDC first disclosed the incident to Reuters a week ago.
An independent laboratory is running the same set of experiments to
see if they get the same answers, which would add to the validity of
Meechan said workers in the bioterror lab were testing a new
protocol for inactivating anthrax before sending the bacteria for
experiments in two lower-security CDC labs.
The protocol they were following had been used by researchers at the
CDC to inactivate other bacteria, but not on anthrax. It called for
placing anthrax into a bath of acid for 10 minutes, removing some,
putting it on a nutrient-rich plate and placing it in an incubator.
After 24 hours, the researchers checked to see if any colonies of
anthrax had grown. None had, so the team took the anthrax that had
been soaking in acid for 24 hours, put it on slides and sent it for
testing in two other CDC labs.
[to top of second column]
The material from the 10-minute sample eventually germinated,
started to divide and form a colony, a process that normally takes
around 48 hours.
Why the team did not wait the standard 48 hours to be sure the acid
bath had killed the bacteria is still under investigation, Meechan
Investigators want to learn what was happening to the anthrax cells
left in the acid bath while the material from the 10-minute sample
was in the incubator.
"We want to know whether or not in the 24 hours when they were
waiting for that plate to grow, they were actually killing more of
the anthrax, and possibly all of it," Meechan said.
A CDC team is setting up an experiment using a similar setup, taking
samples of anthrax soaking in acid at different time intervals up to
"The idea is to see how much time it takes to kill everything in
that solution," Meechan said.
Results of the studies will be available as soon, said CDC spokesman
(Correction made in the last paragraph to say results of the studies
will be available soon, not next week)
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.