Saturday, May 30, 2015

Anthrax in the Mail, AGAIN!

I have just a few things to say about this. First of all, I swear, it's not a publicity stunt on my part, although it is eerie how well-timed this is with the imminent launch of The Death Row Complexwhich deals directly with this subject. For the record, I haven't had access to anthrax components in years, and I never had access to the live bug.

Second: I can't believe the nerve of the Army and the CDC as they look the public in the eye and try to say that there was never any danger. To be clear: this is not the fault of Fed Ex. It's the fault of the researchers who should have known better. Yes, shipments of hazardous materials, including infectious materials, happens routinely. Yes, there are regulations in place to ensure safety--or at least to maximize the probability of safety. But to accidentally ship a batch of live anthrax that was improperly irradiated? WHOOPS. Big whoops. I hope someone was fired.

Third: Yes, this is different from the Amerithrax mailings. Those were deliberate. The perpetrator of that particular crime (I'm still not convinced it was Bruce Ivins) wanted to make people die. So he put live spores in the envelope with no secondary containment. In contrast, official shipments of infectious materials from one biomedical researcher to another is done in closed containers with the appropriate secondary containment. So it should be safe.

HOWEVER: The failure to properly irradiate a sample that was supposed to have been dead is an indication of a serious lack of attention to detail on the part of someone in the lab. That person shouldn't be there. His supervisor shouldn't be there either, if he isn't more in tune with what's going on in his laboratory. This is worse than malice; it's just stupidity.

Why does this matter? One: because there could still be live infectious material on the outside of the secondary container. It could be the wrong bug altogether. It could be shipped to the wrong place. And so forth. In short, if someone in a live anthrax lab is asleep at the wheel, we can't be confident that he or she only screws up in a way that isn't a threat to the public. Two: If this kind of stupidity is allowed to slip through the cracks, then who is to say that the malice won't also? All it takes is one disgruntled researcher to "accidentally" forget to tighten the cap on the vial. And then we've got issues.

For a glimpse of what could happen, check out The Death Row Complex when it's released on June 27. And ... if you work with live anthrax, please, pay attention.

Anthrax is one of only six microorganisms classified by the CDC as Category A (High Priority) biological weapons. For more information about the bug, here's a link to their bioterrorism page, a link to their anthrax page, and a link to the specific Category A agents.

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Death Row Complex, the second Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Death Row Complex in print or ebook.

An anonymous warning is sent to the White House, and a genetically engineered biological weapon is released in a California prison. The unpublished data of biologist Katrina Stone may hold the key to harnessing the lethal bacterium--and to its creation within the desperate world from which biotechnology is born.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

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