On May 27th, the Pentagon admitted that it had shipped live anthrax to facilities in multiple U.S. states, and to a U.S. airbase in South Korea—by accident. Anthrax is usually kept in highly secure biolabs with multiply redundant safeguards. But we’ve always known there is room for human error.
The history of the biolab revolves around events like those of 1921, when two French scientists presented the world with a powerful weapon against tuberculosis. “The Great White Plague,” as it was called, had been infecting and killing humans with relative impunity for over 5,000 years before Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin unveiled their vaccine, composed of weakened tubercle bacteria.
The vaccine caused mortality rates to fall, but its introduction was not without disaster. In 1930, a laboratory in Lübeck, Germany contaminated the vaccines it was producing with a virulent strain of the tubercle bacteria, causing the deaths of over 70 vaccinated children.
Mistakes like the one in Lübeck became the impetus behind the development of biological safety cabinets and eventually, whole laboratories designed to safeguard lab workers and the general public from infection agents. Today, these laboratories are classified into four groups.
Biosafety level 1 labs house biological agents that are dangerous but well-characterized and less likely to cause disease in healthy adults; level 2 labs handle agents with moderate risks; level 3 labs contain airborne agents that are considered potentially lethal; and those agents requiring the highest level of safety measures, biosafety 4, are both airborne and typically have no cure or treatment. Biosafety 4 labs require 10-pound full-body suits, multiple air locks, showers, and ultraviolet decontamination.
The recent anthrax shipment is just the latest in a history of hair-raising incidents. Here are a few more.
1971, Smallpox, Level 4:
Near the center of the Aral Sea sits the island of Vozrozhdeniye, which housed a Russian biological laboratory and military weapons complex. In July 1971, remnants from the explosion of a smallpox weapon on the island traveled by air to a lab technician on the deck of a nearby research vessel, which was collecting plankton samples. By the time she returned to her home in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, she was afflicted by fever, headache, and muscle aches. She broke out in a rash, and her brother fell ill before doctors discovered it was a case of smallpox. Officials ordered mass vaccinations in Aralsk, then a city of 50,000, and hundreds of people were isolated in a special facility. Ten people were infected and three people would die.
1979, Anthrax, Level 4:
In April of 1979, something was killing the people of Sverdlovsk. Ninety-six individuals were infected with flu-like symptoms, and 64 of them died. For years after the outbreak, Soviet officials proclaimed the mass infection was due to a case of rotten meat. But a team of independent researchers investigating the outbreak in 1992 found that a nearby biological warfare base had accidentally released active anthrax spores into the air. In order to contain the epidemic, medical officials visited the homes of the infected citizens and dispensed antibiotics, stray dogs were shot, and local firemen washed the buildings and trees of affected neighborhoods.
1994, Sabia, Level 3:
In August of 1994, Sabia was a little known virus, having only been discovered the year before on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Like the other members of its family, it can cause headaches, muscle aches, vomiting, and internal bleeding. In late 1994, Dr. Jean-Paul Gonzalez was working with the virus in a test tube, wearing just a lab coat, a facemask, and gloves in a biosafety level 3 lab at Yale University. Then the test tube broke while spinning in a centrifuge, hurling its contents into the air. Following procedure, Gonzalez decontaminated the spill and hopped into a shower, dousing himself with a bleach-like solution. But he was alone in the lab at the time and did not report the incident. Even when he developed a fever a week later, he waited four more days before entering a hospital. By that time, he had exposed colleagues, friends, and family. He would go on to expose 139 people before being released.
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