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84 people in US exposed to anthrax

Chicago, June 20 (Reuters): US authorities increased to 84 people their count of government workers potentially exposed to live anthrax at three laboratories in Atlanta as they investigated a breach in safety procedures for handling the deadly pathogen.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said the number of lab workers who may have been exposed rose from the 75 people first disclosed yesterday. As of early today, 32 staff were taking the powerful antibiotic ciprofloxacin, or Cipro, and 20 were taking another antibiotic called doxycycline, CDC press officer Benjamin Haynes said in a statement.

In addition, as many as 27 people were getting the anthrax vaccine to prevent infection. No illnesses have been reported, but the agency expects the number of possible exposures to rise as more people step forward now that news of the anthrax scare is public.

The safety breach, which originated in the CDC’s bioterror lab, raised new concerns about the way laboratories around the world conduct research into the deadliest known pathogens, from anthrax to Ebola and avian flu. CDC has already been under scrutiny over security lapses and mechanical malfunctions at some of its labs.

Dr Paul Meechan, director of the CDC’s environmental health and safety compliance office, first disclosed the possible anthrax exposure to Reuters yesterday. The agency had discovered the lapse on June 13.

According to Meechan, researchers in the CDC’s high-security Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology laboratory realised they had sent live anthrax bacteria, instead of what they thought were harmless samples, to fellow scientists in two lower-security clearance labs at the agency.

The initial safety lapse occurred as scientists in the bioterror lab were trying out a new protocol for inactivating anthrax, using chemicals instead of radiation.

The scientists in the Bioterror Rapid Response unit had been preparing an especially dangerous strain of the bacteria for use at the two lower-security CDC labs.

 
 
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