Stocks of anthrax bacteria at Cambridge University department of clinical veterinary medicine have been destroyed after the Health and Safety Executive discovered that the bug was being handled in a sub-standard laboratory.
Bacillus anthracis is a hazardous group three dangerous pathogen, putting it in the second most dangerous category. But it was being handled in a lower-safety, group two laboratory. The scientist was, however, using a category three ventilation hood. Anthrax poisons the blood and can kill but, in humans, is treatable with antibiotics if caught early. It is a notifiable disease that can wipe out herds of sheep and cattle.
The HSE visited the university in May to inspect the commissioning of a new category three lab. Inspectors visited a nearby category two lab and discovered a bacteriologist handling the anthrax. They issued an improvement notice to the department, saying that it had failed to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health of its employees created by working with the anthrax and also with some mycobacterium species which cause tuberculosis in cattle. Such an assessment became law last January. The HSE said: "The terms of the notice were met very quickly. There was no serious risk to the public." David Sargan, biological safety officer at the department, said that stocks were destroyed the next day. "The person responsible was not aware that in January there had been a legal requirement for an improvement in the way that bacillus anthracis were grown and stored. It wasn't a well-publicised improvement at all so I feel that he was doing the best he knew at the time and was operating in a way that was safe and would have been in compliance before January. However, we should have detected the transgression and the department was certainly at fault".
The department keeps anthrax because it must, by law, teach veterinary students how to identify it.