Deadly pathogens, via mail

The Pen­tagon’s ac­ci­den­tal an­thrax ship­ments fol­low a familiar pat­tern

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - By Katie Shep­herd katie.shep­herd@la­ Twit­ter: @katemshep­herd

The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion dis­cov­ered in May that an Army biode­fense lab in Utah accidentally shipped live sam­ples of an­thrax to pri­vate and mil­i­tary re­search fa­cil­i­ties in as many as 17 states, Canada, Australia and South Korea over a pe­riod of six years.

But this er­ror is not the first in­volv­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment and ship­ments of deadly germs to un­sus­pect­ing sci­en­tists. In 2014, the CDC closed two labs and im­posed a tem­po­rary mora­to­rium on ship­ping deadly pathogens af­ter a string of in­ci­dents.

Gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­ties have mis­tak­enly sent, mis­la­beled or lost an­thrax, small­pox, bot­u­lism, bru­cella and dan­ger­ously con­tam­i­nated flu viruses in the past.

CDC of­fi­cials have said they won’t know what ac­tions to sug­gest to pre­vent fu­ture mis­takes un­til they fin­ish their in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the ship­ping er­rors dis­cov­ered last month.

Though th­ese events rarely cause public health risks, the mis­han­dling of danger­ous bi­o­log­i­cal agents has caused con­cern at least half a dozen times in the last decade. In 2014, the CDC is­sued a re­port on other in­ci­dents in­volv­ing haz­ardous bac­te­ria and viruses dat­ing to 2006. Some high­lights:


In 2006, a gov­ern­ment biode­fense lab failed to en­sure that vials of an­thrax were ren­dered in­ert — es­sen­tially life­less and in­ca­pable of growth — be­fore send­ing the sam­ples to an­other fa­cil­ity.

The CDC also caught its bioter­ror­ism labs stor­ing an­thrax in un­locked re­frig­er­a­tors and trans­port­ing live sam­ples in Zi­ploc bags. CDC of­fi­cials ap­peared be­fore a con­gres­sional over­sight panel in 2014 and said the lapses in se­cu­rity were “com­pletely un­ac­cept­able” and “should never have hap­pened.” More than 80 CDC em­ploy­ees were po­ten­tially ex­posed to an­thrax be­cause of those lapses, but none was in­fected.

The gov­ern­ment uses an­thrax in re­search to de­velop tools to de­tect po­ten­tial bi­o­log­i­cal ter­ror­ism.


Small­pox, one of his­tory’s dead­li­est dis­eases, was erad­i­cated in 1977 af­ter a world­wide vac­ci­na­tion move­ment. The last U.S. case ap­peared in 1949, and So­ma­lia saw the world’s last nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring case, ac­cord­ing to the CDC.

To en­sure the virus never reap­peared to in­fect peo­ple, lab­o­ra­to­ries around the world were or­dered to de­stroy stored sam­ples of the virus — dead or alive.

Only two fa­cil­i­ties, the CDC in At­lanta and a lab near Novosi­birsk, Rus­sia, could keep small­pox-caus­ing viruses in case the dis­ease resur­faced.

That’s why it was a ma­jor shock when six small vials la­beled “var­i­ola” turned up in an un­used stor­age room at a re­search fa­cil­ity in Bethesda, Md., in 2014. Var­i­ola is an­other name for the deadly and long-erad­i­cated virus that causes small­pox.

The vials dated to the 1950s. Ap­par­ently, some­one had freeze-dried the virus, packed it away in a card­board box and for­got about the vials hid­den in the stor­age room.

Of­fi­cials spec­u­lated that the vials may have once be­longed to a Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health lab that left the box when the fa­cil­ity changed hands to the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The last known cases of small­pox re­sulted from a 1978 lab ac­ci­dent in Eng­land. Avian flu

This year’s avian flu out­break has af­fected more than 43 mil­lion birds in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture. And though it is rare and hasn’t hap­pened in the cur­rent out­break, peo­ple can be­come in­fected by fowl car­ry­ing the dis­ease.

About 60% of the peo­ple who con­tract the strain of the dis­ease known as H5N1 die, ac­cord­ing to the CDC.

In 2014, a CDC lab accidentally mailed vials of a be­nign bird flu con­tam­i­nated with H5N1 to the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture. The depart­ment didn’t re­al­ize the mis­take un­til sev­eral chick­ens died. The flu was con­tained in the lab and none of the work­ers was in­fected.


In 2006, a CDC lab mis­tak­enly shipped live bot­u­lism bac­te­ria, which cre­ate a po­ten­tially deadly nerve toxin, to an­other fa­cil­ity, which the CDC did not iden­tify in its re­port.

The in­ci­dent was one of five ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing danger­ous pathogens re­counted in the 2014 re­port by the CDC out­lin­ing mis­takes and pro­ce­dural er­rors at gov­ern­ment labs.


An­other in­ci­dent men­tioned in the CDC’s 2014 in­ves­ti­ga­tion into mis­han­dled pathogens in­volved bru­cella bac­te­ria in 2006.

A CDC lab mis­tak­enly sent what were thought to be vac­cines to an­other fa­cil­ity that was not iden­ti­fied in the 2014 re­port. The mis­la­beled sam­ples ac­tu­ally con­tained live bru­cella.

The germ can cause an in­fec­tion called bru­cel­losis, which is the most com­mon work-re­lated in­fec­tion con­tracted by sci­en­tists. Peo­ple who get sick from bru­cel­losis can suf­fer from flu-like symptoms, in­clud­ing fever and mus­cle pain, but some ef­fects can last for years and cause arthri­tis or de­pres­sion.

Over the years, the CDC has closed labs, is­sued tem­po­rary halts to ship­ping deadly pathogens and com­pleted nu­mer­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tions be­cause of in­ci­dents de­tailed in its 2014 re­port and the live an­thrax ship­ments dis­cov­ered in May.

It is still un­clear why those sam­ples were still alive when re­searchers thought the spores were dead.

The CDC and Pen­tagon “are con­tin­u­ing to in­ves­ti­gate the cir­cum­stances around the ship­ment of the sam­ples,” said Ja­son McDon­ald, a spokesman for the CDC.

“It’s pre­ma­ture at this point to spec­u­late on what, if any, ad­di­tional pro­ce­dures may need to be put in place in the fu­ture,” he said.

Kristin Mur­phy De­seret News

A MOD­ULE at the Army’s Dug­way Prov­ing Ground in Utah for han­dling danger­ous germs. The lab is the source of ac­ci­den­tal ship­ments of live an­thrax.

Jim Wat­son

A PEN­TAGON of­fi­cial demon­strates how an­thrax is shipped. A 2014 re­port de­tailed ac­ci­den­tal ship­ments.

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