Mistaken Army anthrax shipment: 'no known risk to the general public'

A US Army test facility mistakenly sent live anthrax spores to labs in nine states and a US air base in South Korea. Workers who might have been exposed are being treated, and so far no one has shown any sign of the disease.

Jim Urquhart/AP
The main gate at Dugway Proving Ground military base, about 85 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, Utah. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is investigating what the Pentagon called an inadvertent shipment of live anthrax spores to government and commercial laboratories in as many as nine states, as well as one overseas, that expected to receive dead spores.

Military and civilian officials aren’t sure yet why live anthrax spores were sent from the United States Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah to government and commercial labs in nine states and to an Army lab at a US air base in South Korea.

But none of the 22 people who may have been exposed to the live anthrax at Osan Air Base, and who were given precautionary medical measures, have shown “any signs of possible exposure," the air base said in a statement. A Pentagon spokesman said, “There is no known risk to the general public.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes anthrax as “a serious infectious disease” caused by a bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax is found naturally in soil, but it can also be processed into a biological weapon. Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anthrax was mailed to members of Congress and the news media in New York and Florida. Five people died and 17 others became sick, including postal workers and others who came into contact with the anthrax. Responsibility for the dangerous mailings has never been reliably settled.

The Dugway Proving Ground is a test facility for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense systems. Part of the facility’s work involves the use of live anthrax samples, but it was anthrax samples safely killed by radiation that had been scheduled for shipment by FedEx to the other labs.

The labs, which have not been named – as many as 18 labs in all, reports USA Today – are in Texas, Maryland, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, Tennessee, New York, California, and Virginia. Four workers that handled samples in the US labs are on post-exposure treatment.

Speaking to a defense writers’ group Thursday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said, “I’m 99.9 percent confident that nobody’s in danger.”

General Odierno said it appears that proper procedures were followed, but that the process to kill the anthrax samples was faulty. “The best I can tell, it was not human error,” he said.

But Richard Ebright, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., called the mistake "gross negligence."

"There is absolutely no excuse. Not for the shipping institution. Not for receiving institutions that failed to confirm inactivation upon receipt," Dr. Ebright told USA Today. "Both should lose, irrevocably, authorization for work with active or inactivated select agents."

This week’s mistaken shipment is not the first controversy involving potentially deadly anthrax.

After a series of safety lapses at CDC facilities, including the accidental exposure of 80 unprotected workers to anthrax at CDC's Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology lab last June, an independent panel of experts convened by CDC Director Tom Frieden found what it said were inadequate lab safety practices and procedures. Other incidents had involved avian flu and smallpox viruses.

"Leadership commitment toward safety has been inconsistent and insufficient at multiple levels," the panel reported in March. "Safety, including lab safety, is viewed by many as something separate from and outside the primary missions of public health and research. Safety is not integrated into strategic planning and is not currently part of the CDC culture, enterprise-wide.”

The CDC has said it is making progress toward addressing the problems raised in the report, which includes a standardized lab safety training curriculum and an external review and accreditation process for all CDC labs.

The same kind of rigorous review is likely for this week’s incident.

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