US says 75 government scientists possibly exposed to anthrax

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US says 75 government scientists possibly exposed to anthrax
ARLINGTON, VA - JUNE 03: Director of Medical Programs for DoD Chemical and Biological Defense Cdr. Franca Jones demonstrates the protocol for shipping anthrax sample during a news briefing on the DoD Lab Review and Anthrax shipment investigation June 3, 2015 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The Pentagon announced today the Defense Department may have accidentally shipped live anthrax samples out to at least 51 labs in 17 states, the District of Columbia and three foreign countries. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - JUNE 03: Director of Medical Programs for DoD Chemical and Biological Defense Cdr. Franca Jones demonstrates the protocol for shipping anthrax sample as Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall looks on during a news briefing on the DoD Lab Review and Anthrax shipment investigation June 3, 2015 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The Pentagon announced today the Defense Department may have accidentally shipped live anthrax samples out to at least 51 labs in 17 states, the District of Columbia and three foreign countries. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
This image depicted numbers of Bacillus anthracis bacterial colonies, which had been allowed to grow on sheep's blood agar, SBA, for a 24 hour period. Note the classical appearance exhibited in the colonial morphology including a ground-glass, non-pigment. (Photo via Getty)
SLUG:NA/ANTHRAX DATE:10/16/08 QUANTICO, VA CREDIT: DOMINIC BRACCO II From left, forensic examiner Jason Bannan Ph.D., supervisory special agent Scott Decker, and supervisory special agent Matthew Feinberg, pose for a portrait on Oct. 16, 2008 at a lab in Quantico, VA. The three helped solve the anthrax investigation. (Photo by Dominic Bracco Ii/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - May 6: Amir Ettehadieh, Director of Research and Development at Universal Detection Technology, walks past the prototype anthrax-detection device unveiled May 6, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. Universal Detection Technology's Anthrax Smoke Detector monitors the overall level of spores in the air. A sudden spike in the level would indicate a release of spores such as would occur during in a biological terror attack. Instant anthrax exposure detection could save lives by giving patients time to take Cipro before the end of the four-day incubation period. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) - As many as 75 scientists working in U.S. federal government laboratories in Atlanta may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria and are being offered treatment to prevent infection, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.

The potential exposure occurred after researchers working in a high-level biosecurity laboratory at the agency's Atlanta campus failed to follow proper procedures to inactivate the bacteria. They then transferred the samples, which may have contained live bacteria, to lower-security CDC labs not equipped to handle live anthrax.

Dr Paul Meechan, director of the environmental health and safety compliance office at the CDC, said the agency discovered the potential exposure on the evening of Friday, June 13, and immediately began contacting individuals working in the labs who may have unknowingly handled live anthrax bacteria.

Up To 75 CDC Workers Accidentally Exposed To Anthrax

"No employee has shown any symptoms of anthrax illness," Meechan told Reuters.

Meechan said the normal incubation period can take up to five to seven days, though there are documented cases of the illness occurring some 60 days after exposure.

Meechan said as many as seven researchers may have come into direct contact with the live anthrax. But the agency is casting as wide a net as possible to make sure all employees at the agency who may have walked into any of the labs at risk are being offered treatment.

Around 75 individuals are being offered a 60-day course of treatment with the antibiotic ciprofloxacin as well as an injection with an anthrax vaccine.

Meechan said it is too early to determine whether the transfer was accidental or intentional. He said that all employees who were doing procedures to inactivate the bacteria were working in a biosecurity laboratory and were "tier one select agent approved," meaning they had undergone a security reliability review and deemed to be "stable, trustworthy individuals."

Meechan said the CDC is conducting an internal investigation to discover how the exposure occurred and said disciplinary measures would be taken if warranted.

"This should not have happened," he said. For those exposed, he said, "We're taking care of it. We will not let our people be at risk."

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Michele Gershberg, James Dalgleish and Eric Walsh)

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