Oopsie! My bad!

Incoming from Atlanta:

As many as 75 scientists working in US government laboratories in Atlanta may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria and are being offered treatment to prevent infection from the deadly organism, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

That’s not good.

Potentially dangerous bugs are categorised on a 1-4 scale so that when we’re working with them, we can handle them appropriately and protect ourselves (both laboratory workers and the general public) accordingly:

  • Hazard Group 1 – A biological agent that is unlikely to cause human disease.
  • Hazard Group 2 – A biological agent that can cause human disease and may be a hazard to employees; it is unlikely to spread to the communityand there is usually an effective prophylaxis or effective treatment is usually available.
  • Hazard Group 3 – A biological agent that can cause severe human disease and presents a serious hazard to employees; it may present a risk of spreading to the community but there is usually effective prophylaxis or treatment available.
  • Hazard Group 4 – A biological agent that causes severe human disease and is a serious hazard to employees; it is likely to spread to the community and there is usually no effective prophylaxis or treatment available.

Bacillus anthracis – the bacteria that causes Anthrax – is a Hazard Group 3 organism. For reference, Ebola virus is a 4 (you have to wear a big yellow suit), E.coli is a 2 (you can play with it on your desk), and Tobacco Mosaic Virus is a 1 (you can lick it and still not get ill).
Obviously, this is a scale set up for humans. If you’re a tobacco plant, Tobacco Mosaic Virus would be right up there in the 4’s. TMV is the tobacco plant version of Ebola. Tobacco plants should not lick TMV. Hell, tobacco plants shouldn’t even have tongues.

So, while you’d probably rather not work with stuff at the top end, sometimes you just have to (I do this with TB – also group 3 – every day), so you take precautions, for example “inactivating” (read: “killing”) the bug before you work with it. That’s what should have happened with this B.anthracis, but someone made an oopsie and forgot to do it.
Or at least forgot to do it right. Awkies.
Or maybe deliberately chose to forget to do it. (In which case, click here.)

Thus, what should have been a perfectly harmless bug turned out to be anything but, and now loads of people have potentially been exposed to a rather nasty disease:

With anthrax, the biggest threat is inhalation anthrax, in which bacterial spores enter the lungs where they germinate before actually causing disease, a process that can take one to six days. Once they germinate, they release toxins that can cause internal bleeding, swelling and tissue death.
About 90 percent of people with second-stage inhalation anthrax die, even after antibiotic treatment.

Fortunately, you have to mess around quite a lot with B.anthracis to get those spores aerosolised (as in Dustin Hoffman’s famous line in Outbreak: “OMG… it’s gone airborne!”) in order that they can be inhaled, so that’s probably not… sorry… they did what?

Two of the three labs conducted research that may have aerosolised the spores, the CDC said on Thursday.

“…may have”. Lolz. I love it. As if it’s something that could have happened accidentally.
That’s like saying:

“Steve, did you write a detailed 2500 word essay on the formation of the popular 1980s rock band Def Leppard, with specific reference to their roots in city of Sheffield and the declining mining and manufacturing sectors in South Yorkshire around the time of their inception, this morning?”

“Umm. I may have.”

Presumably, these US Government labs were merely working on Anthrax in order to protect the general public should any more “white powder” letters be sent through the US Postal Service.
As the two crisply dressed, concerningly efficient American gentlemen who are suddenly standing behind me (how did you guys get into my house, by the way?) have just pointed out, I can’t for the life of me think what other reason they would have for producing aerosolised Anthrax spores, inactivated or otherwise.