CDC makes staff changes at lab after anthrax scare

CBS News

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is making personnel changes at the lab where dozens of scientists and staff were exposed to anthrax.

Sources told Reuters that the director of the Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory, Mike Farrell, has been reassigned while the CDC investigates the incident. However, the CDC would not confirm the name to CBS News. CDC spokesman Tom Skinner declined to comment on Farrell for Reuters. Calls and e-mail to Farrell were not returned.

As many as 84 employees of the lab on the CDC's Atlanta campus may have been accidentally exposed to live anthrax bacteria earlier this month when safety protocols were not followed.

"Out of an abundance of caution, CDC is taking aggressive steps to protect the health of all involved, including protective courses of antibiotics for potentially exposed staff," the agency said in a statement on Friday. "Based on most of the potential exposure scenarios, the risk of infection is very low."

The workers have been offered an anthrax vaccine or powerful antibiotics to help ward off potentially deadly illness from the bacteria.

According to the CDC, at some point between June 6 and June 13, workers in the bioterror lab did not follow safety procedures while preparing the anthrax bacteria for transfer to different lower-security CDC labs.

"Workers, believing the samples were inactivated, were not wearing adequate personal protective equipment while handling the material," the agency explained in the statement. "Environmental sampling was done, lab and hallway areas were decontaminated and laboratories will be re-opened when safe to operate."

The CDC says other scientists at the facility, families of employees and the general public are not at risk of anthrax infection and don't need to take medical action.

Anthrax bacteria can be naturally found in soil, and infections in humans are rare. Depending on the extent of the infection, symptoms may include blisters, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, high fever and meningitis. If anthrax is aerosolized and inhaled, it can cause a deadly respiratory infection.

In 2001, five people died from anthrax mailed in anonymous letters. The government determined in 2008 that the attacks were the work of Army scientist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide while under investigation.