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Anthrax Blunder Reveals Deadly Potential of Accidents

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Credit: CDC/ Laura Rose

Electron micrograph of anthrax spores Credit: CDC/ Laura Rose

A lab director has reportedly been reassigned and other heads at the U.S. Center for Disease Control are likely to roll after an incident earlier this month in which at least 75 staff members may have accidentally been exposed to live samples of anthrax being transported from one lab to another. The samples were supposed to have been inactivated before they were transferred—and it is unclear why they were not.

Naturally there will be an investigation. But there is a bigger issue at play here beyond just why proper procedure was not followed. And it’s one that Scientific American last raised in 2008 with “Postal Anthrax Aftermath: Has Biodefense Spending Made Us Safer?” and, at greater length, in 2007 with “Laboratory Letdowns.”

Put another way: which is the more likely threat to public safety—a series of accidental releases of deadly organisms from the high-level biodefense labs that have proliferated in the wake of the anthrax attacks of 2001 or a single, but much bigger, intentional release by an actual terrorist network?

So far, the lab releases of biological agents have proven far more deadly: the 2001 attack, which killed five people, was itself probably carried out using a research strain of anthrax, probably from a U.S. laboratory. In 1978, a medical photographer in England died of smallpox, which had somehow escaped from a laboratory at the University of Birmingham. At least three people died in 1971 after smallpox was released (accidentally or on purpose, no one knows) from a Soviet-era bioeweapons lab in what is now Kazakhstan.

Update (6/24/2014): As Kelly Hills pointed out on Twitter, my list doesn’t even include the Sverdlovsk accidental release of anthrax, which killed 70-100 people, in 1979.

A 2013 report from the General Accounting Office shows that the U.S. still does not have a good sense of how many high security biological agent laboratories it needs. In the rush to protect the country from biothreats after the 2001 attacks, no one bothered to do figure out what the actual need was so we may already have too many (or too few) high-containment labs.  Meanwhile, auditors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture found significant lapses in safety protocols in their 2012 report, available here.

About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. singing flea 6:59 pm 06/23/2014

    The real problem as I see it is that if a terrorist attack is ever executed with something like weaponized anthrax it would be done using biological materials that were either stolen or made with stolen technology from these labs whether or not the labs are in America or anywhere else.

    A much bigger threat is the highly infectious disease organisms they play with every day. With blatant errors like this happening, it’s just a matter of time.

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  2. 2. Anonymous 2:54 pm 06/26/2014

    I wonder if anyone has considered the possibility that a rogue element of our own country, for example such as an activist organization backed by a billionaire who feels the country needs its Constitution revised, could recruit sympathetic scientists to create a lethal virus like Ebola (only the effects are immediate) that works quickly then dies? Releasing such a virus in Washington, D.C. near the Capitol could wipe out Congress and the President, then quickly die, allowing this rogue element to move in for the kill and takeover the country. Virus detection technology would have to identify “unknown” viruses and lock-down the Capitol, moving the President into the underground, at a moment’s notice. Although it would be a quarantine disaster with tourists and those in the vicinity, government would not cease to operate. All ventilation would be cut, doors would slam shut, and areas where Congress is in session would be sealed to the highest CDC bio-hazard standards. (As I’m not a scientist, pardon if this description sounds rudimentary.) I would hope there are such precautions in Congress, the Supreme Court, and other areas of government required to maintain a functioning democracy. Of course we know the President will be safe, because if he isn’t, the Pentagon isn’t doing its job.

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  3. 3. hkraznodar 4:32 pm 07/7/2014

    @Anonymous: Some of us would view the scenario you present as a gift from God. It would only take a week or two at the most for the various governors to appoint replacements for congress and the presidential succession is clearly designated. The Supreme Court would take a bit longer but not by much. The great benefit is that the special interests that buy and sell congress people would have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars with nothing to show for it.

    Your rogue element would be rendered meaningless almost immediately.

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