Scientist reflects on last year’s anthrax threat

Andrew Cannons, laboratory scientific director for the Center for Biological Defense at USF, spoke at Thursday’s Infectious Disease Association meeting. Cannons gave an overview of the center and discussed last year’s anthrax threat.

Cannons said it is difficult to recognize a bioterrorism attack because most of the labs are not able to recognize the agents used in the attack. He said the people at the forefront who are involved with preparedness for possible bioterrorism attacks are health care communities, hospital emergency rooms and first responders, such as fire departments and police departments. Several federal agencies ,including the National Security Council, the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency, are also involved.

When the anthrax scare came about in October 2001, it reignited interest in bioterrorism.

Cannons discussed the three ways to contract anthrax: cutaneous, gastrointestinal and inhalational.

Cutaneous anthrax enters the body through a skin lesion and is painless. It incubates for one to 12 days and has a 20 percent mortality rate if it’s not treated and a 1 percent mortality rate if treated.

Gastrointestinal anthrax enters the body when the spores are ingested. It includes severe abdominal pain and fever. It incubates for one to seven days and comes in the throat and abdominal forms. There is a 50-100 percent mortality rate even if it is treated.

Inhalational anthrax is breathed into the lungs and is the most lethal form of anthrax. Often mistaken for the flu, its symptoms include mild fever and muscle aches and may progress to respiratory failure and is . It incubates for one to seven days, and the fatality rate is very high if not treated.

“Once spores get into blood, and then get into the lungs, it becomes toxic and leads to immediate death,” Cannons said.

In Florida, over 1,500 items were sampled for anthrax in Tampa. In Miami, which had a positive sample, over 4,000 and in Jacksonville over 3,000 items were sampled. Cannons said items from computer keyboards to cookies came into the labs. “Anything that had white powder on it, people were sending them into the labs,” Cannons said.

He said that no further samples tested positive after the initial incident. Processing of samples takes 24-48 hours, and the standard method of testing for anthrax is a culture.

Graduate student Darius Taylor said having the Center for Biological Defense on campus is a great opportunity for the community.

“I think it’s cool that USF has research facilities on campus,” Taylor said. “That says a lot about the university and helps in keeping our country safe.”

The USF Center for Biological Defense was established in fall 2000 in conjunction with the Federal Homeland Defense on biodefense research.