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CDC Anthrax Blunder: Numbers Could Climb Higher

More than 80 people may have been exposed to airborne anthrax bacteria in an embarrassing mishap at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 80 people may have been exposed to airborne anthrax bacteria in an embarrassing mishap at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and the numbers may go even higher, officials said Friday.

“Right now we have an excess of 80 individuals,” CDC deputy director Dr. Ileana Arias told NBC News. “We expect that number may even grow … because we're trying to make that available to as many people as possible in order to make sure there are no adverse consequences to health of any of our employees as a result of what happened.”

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It’s not the first time the CDC has been tricked by anthrax, and the agency is going all out to make sure that this time no one gets sick. The last time, in 2001, five people died including two postal workers infected after anthrax spores puffed out of anthrax-filled letters as they were processed.

CDC officials said late Friday that they've ceded control of the investigation into the safety breach to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to avoid any potential conflict of interest. In normal circumstances, the CDC's Division of Select Agents and Toxins, DSAT, would handle the probe. Instead, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, APHIS, which is also part of the Select Agent Program, will look into the matter.

The CDC’s Dr. Paul Meechan told Reuters that the agency’s Bioterror Rapid Response units had been preparing an especially dangerous strain of the bacteria for use in two lower-security CDC labs.

They thought the bacteria had been inactivated, making it safe to handle. But a week later, workers noticed a lab dish containing live, growing anthrax, and they realized they had sent similar samples to labs that were not taking the precautions needed to protect people against infection.

CDC has had problems with laboratory procedures before, Arias said.

“We have had incidents before where somebody may have cut corners or things may have happened,” she said. “In each of those situations we were — we did very rigorous investigations and reviews of exactly what happened, what needed to be done, implemented those fixes and have not had subsequent problems as a result.”

Members of the U.S. Marine Corps' Chemical-Biological Incident Response Force demonstrate anthrax clean-up techniques during a news conference in on Capitol Hill in Washington.Kenneth Lambert / AP file

Experts doubt the CDC workers are in any danger. “I don’t think any of these individuals will get infected,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja of the UPMC Center for Health Security, which specializes in studying such threats. “They’re going to be taking the vaccine as well as antibiotics.”

Anthrax is a common infection that kills a wide range of animals and people. It can infect the skin, the gastrointestinal tract when swallowed, or, if inhaled, it can cause a lung infection.

This last type is the worst, because the bacteria release spores that can lurk in the body for 60 days or more before they are activated. Then they release a toxin that can kill. If a person develops serious symptoms of inhaled anthrax infection, it’s too late to treat them because it’s the poison, not the bacteria itself, causing the symptoms.

No one knew precisely how deadly anthrax can be until 2001, when someone sent powdered anthrax spores through the mail to various media outlets, including NBC News, and members of Congress. In all, 22 people got sick and five died. And 10,000 people were given antibiotics to prevent infection.

“Incidents like this can’t and shouldn’t happen."

CDC officials debated whether to close post offices in 2001 after the first cases of anthrax were seen, and decided not to. Some officials said afterwards they regretted that decision.

The FBI said Bruce Ivins, a civilian scientist at the U.S. Army's biohazard lab in Maryland, was the culprit. Ivins committed suicide before he could be arrested.

For weeks, months and in some cases years offices in Washington D.C. and across the country changed their procedures for handling mail. Two of those killed were workers at a Washington postal facility that handled some of the contaminated envelopes — officials figured out too late that the deadly spores could leak out of the sealed envelopes as they passed through machinery.

They’re so fine they often can float in the air almost endlessly, never even settling on surfaces. This is why the CDC is taking the latest incident so seriously, and taking decontamination procedures to the limit.

The CDC says at least 84 workers at three labs have been identified in the current investigation. Spokesman Tom Skinner says 54 have been seen and offered antibiotics; 52 are taking them, and two have refused. The antibiotics ciprofloxacin and doxycycline can treat or prevent an anthrax infection. But when the risk is inhaled anthrax — as in this case — people must take the drugs for weeks to be safe.

A biohazard worker prepares to enter the office of Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., in the Longworth House office building on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2001.Kenneth Lambert / AP file

Skinner says 27 workers have started the five-shot series of anthrax vaccines, and another 19 have refused.

“We are looking into why this happened. Until we better understand that, we won’t know what needs to be done different,” Skinner said.

“Incidents like this can’t and shouldn’t happen. We’re taking full responsibility here to make sure it does not happen again. Employee safety is priority one and when this was discovered we moved swiftly to identify those who were potentially exposed to make sure they were properly cared for.”

Anthrax remains No. 1 on the list of potential terrorist agents, because it is deadly when breathed in, relatively easy to make into a powder and, compared to other agents, fairly simple to obtain. “It is a category A agent,” says Adalja. “It’s tried and true, and it’s easy to disseminate.”

And it’s mysterious. No one knows how two of the 2001 victims — a woman in New York and another in Connecticut — died, Adalja said. “They assumed it was cross-contamination of envelopes,” he said. “But the questions are still not answered of how those people got it.”

“People have forgotten that there is still a lot of mystery there,” Adalja said.