US anthrax scare: 86 people possibly exposed to deadly bacteria after scientists' blunder

Live pathogen was accidentally sent to low-security labs

A major anthrax scare has been triggered in the US after almost 90 people were possibly exposed to the deadly bacteria when bio-terrorism researchers failed to follow safety procedures.

On 13 June, scientists at the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) realised they had sent live anthrax to researchers at lower-security labs rather than harmless samples of the pathogen.

Anthrax is deadly in most forms and can affect both humans and animals.

The spores are highly contagious and are considered a major biological warfare risk. Anthrax weapons were once held by the US and Soviet Union and a tiny Scottish island was left uninhabitable for decades by tests there during the Second World War.

A CDC spokesman said 86 people were potentially exposed in the US blunder but no illness has so far been reported.

Interviews, CCTV and key card data has been used to to identify anyone who might have been inside one of the two labs.

Everyone affected has been contacted and offered them antibiotics and a vaccine.

The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention The initial lapse occurred in the CDC's Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology laboratory, a high security area that was testing a new way of inactivating anthrax with chemicals instead of radiation.

According to Dr Paul Meechan, the scientists had been preparing an especially dangerous strain of the bacteria for use in two lower-security CDC labs - the Biotechnology Core Facility and the Special Bacteriology Reference Laboratory.

Those teams were experimenting with methods to more quickly identify anthrax in substances and powders sent to the US.

“If there was a bioterrorism incident, we could more quickly identify yes or no, this sample has anthrax,” said Dr Meechan, the director of the CDC's environmental health and safety office.

To check the new deactivating method, they took a sample of what they thought was dead bacteria and put it on an agar plate to see if it would grow.

“They waited 24 hours. They took a look at the plate and they didn't see any new growth,” Dr Meechan said. “At that point they assumed the material was safe."

Researchers took the slides to the two lower-security labs and a week later, one of the labs asked for additional inactivated samples.

Scientists in the bioterror lab then discovered that they had left the agar plates in an incubator for an additional week and found anthrax growing in one of the dishes, meaning all the samples could have contained live bacteria.

People working in those labs take less precautions against contamination were unlikely to be wearing a respirator, putting them at higher risk for infection.

The team immediately took back the samples and contacted the staff members who had handled them.

Concentrated spores were sent to two US senators and media outlets in 2001 in the post - infecting 22 people and killing five. The US Postal Service has had biohazard detection systems in place ever since.

Additional reporting by Reuters

Read more: Anthrax found in drug user's body in Glasgow
Fears of anthrax outbreak from contaminated heroin
500 infected with anthrax in Bangladesh
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Floyd Mayweather will relinquish his five world titles after beating Manny Pacquiao
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living