Dozens of labs re­ceived po­ten­tially live an­thrax: of­fi­cials


The Pen­tagon dis­closed Wed­nes­day that it in­ad­ver­tently shipped pos­si­bly live an­thrax to at least 51 lab­o­ra­to­ries across the U.S. and in three for­eign coun­tries over the past decade, but it has yet to de­ter­mine how it hap­pened, who is to blame, why it was not dis­cov­ered ear­lier and how much worse the em­bar­rass­ment will get.

One of the few things Pen­tagon of­fi­cials said they were sure of is that public health is not at risk.

“We know of no risk to the gen­eral public,” Deputy De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert Work told a Pen­tagon news con­fer­ence. He said the sus­pect an­thrax was shipped in such low con­cen­tra­tions and in such se­cure pack­ag­ing that it al­most cer­tainly posed no health risk to any­one out­side the 51 labs.

The an­thrax was sup­posed to have been killed with gamma rays by De­fense Depart­ment lab tech­ni­cians be­fore be­ing shipped for use by com­mer­cial labs and gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­ties in re­search and the cal­i­bra­tion of bio­haz­ard sen­sors. But for rea­sons not yet ex­plained, the an­thrax ap­par­ently re­mained alive.

To com­pound the er­ror, fol­lowup lab tests to ver­ify that the an­thrax had been killed be­fore be­ing shipped ap­par­ently also failed. One ques­tion for the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion is whether a suf­fi­ciently large sam­ple size of the ir­ra­di­ated an­thrax was used in the verification tests, or whether those fol­low-up tests were even per­formed.

Of­fi­cials said the mis­takes ap­pear to have be­gun in 2005 or 2006, although Work said the Pen­tagon did not be­come aware of them un­til alerted May 22 by an uniden­ti­fied com­mer­cial lab in Mary­land. That lab re­ported that sup­pos­edly dead an­thrax sam­ples it re­ceived from an Army lab­o­ra­tory con­tained live spores.

Navy Cmdr. Franca Jones, direc­tor of Pen­tagon med­i­cal pro­grams for chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal de­fense, told re­porters that 31 in­di­vid­u­als are re­ceiv­ing an­tibi­otics as a pre­cau­tion but none are sick. She said 19 of the 51 lab­o­ra­to­ries that re­ceived sus­pect an­thrax have sub­mit­ted it to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion for testing, and said that of nine sam­ples fully tested thus far, all nine have proven to con­tain live an­thrax.

“We’ll find more” labs re­ceived the sus­pect an­thrax than the 51 no­ti­fied thus far, Jones pre­dicted, since more than 400 mas­ter batches of an­thrax at four De­fense Depart­ment lab­o­ra­to­ries that are re­spon­si­ble for ship­ping it to com­mer­cial lab­o­ra­to­ries have yet to be tested for live an­thrax spores.

Of four batches fully tested thus far — all at the Army’s Dug­way Prov­ing Ground in Utah — all four have been determined to con­tain live an­thrax, even though the ma­te­rial had un­der­gone ir­ra­di­a­tion in ac­cor­dance with a wellestab­lished but ap­par­ently flawed pro­to­col for killing the an­thrax.

Jones said the sam­ples from those mas­ter batches were shipped as long ago as 2006. She did not pro­vide a full timeline for the ship­ments, although some were re­ceived in re­cent months.

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