By Hilary Russ and Julie Steenhuysen
ATLANTA/CHICAGO, June 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reassigned the director of the bioterror lab behind the potential anthrax exposure of dozens of scientists and staff, sources told Reuters, as the anthrax controversy intensified.
Michael Farrell, head of the CDC's Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory, has been reassigned as the agency investigates the incident, two CDC scientists who are not authorized to speak with press told Reuters.
The possible exposure has forced as many as 84 employees at the agency's Atlanta campus to get a vaccine or take powerful antibiotics with known side effects to ward off potentially deadly anthrax disease.
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner declined to comment on Farrell. Calls and e-mail to Farrell were not returned.
On Friday, the CDC gathered staff at a meeting, where individuals in labs adjacent to the affected areas complained they had not been properly informed about the anthrax incident first discovered on June 13, Skinner said.
In a Friday e-mail to staff, CDC Director Dr Thomas Frieden apologized for delays in informing the wider CDC community about lapses in the high-profile bioterror lab.
"We waited too long to inform the broader CDC workforce," he wrote in the email obtained by Reuters.
According to the CDC, some time between June 6 and June 13, workers in the bioterror lab were trying out a new protocol for killing anthrax before sending the bacteria for use in two lower-security CDC labs.
CDC spokesman Skinner on Sunday said the bioterror lab sent the anthrax bacteria to other labs in closed tubes. The recipients agitated the tubes and then removed the lids, raising concerns that live anthrax could have been released into the air.
Both of the CDC scientists Reuters spoke with believe the risk of infection is very slight because only a tiny amount of anthrax was sent out of the bioterror lab.
On June 18, a team of CDC scientists used swabs and wipes to take samples from all lab surfaces that might have been contaminated.
Skinner said results from the first two days of tests have been negative, but the CDC will continue watching the samples for another six days to see if anything grows.
Dr. Paul Meechan, director of the CDC's environmental health and safety compliance office, first disclosed the possible anthrax exposure to Reuters on Thursday. (Editing by Peter Henderson)