Yesterday the U.S. Pentagon disclosed that it may have mistakenly shipped live anthrax to more than 50 different laboratories across the country and 3 in foreign countries. The U.S Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah sent frozen anthrax to labs in 17 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, Australia and South Korea, as part of the military’s program to study and build defenses against biological weapons.
The anthrax was supposed to have been destroyed with gamma rays before being shipped, but somehow remained alive. To compound the mistake, follow-up lab tests to verify that the anthrax had been killed before being shipped also failed.
Authorities are also questioning if a large enough sample of the anthrax was used in the verification tests, and whether those follow-up tests were actually performed.
Officials said the mistakes appear to have begun as far back as 2005, although the Pentagon did not become aware of them until 2 weeks ago, when one of the labs in Maryland reported to the CDC that the anthrax samples it received from the Army lab contained live spores.
19 of the 51 laboratories that received the suspected anthrax samples have already submitted them to the CDC for testing. Of the 9 samples fully tested thus far, all have proven to contain live anthrax. Investigators have begun testing more than 400 master batches of Anthrax in attempt to trace the source of contamination. The first four batches checked all tested positive for live anthrax.
Pentagon officials claim they are sure that anthrax shipped was in such low concentrations and the vials were properly sealed, so there is no public health risk.
Thus far no one has developed an anthrax infection from the shipments, and the 31 lab workers who handled the anthrax vials are being treated with antibiotics to staff off potential exposure. The Pentagon says it will plans to hold people accountable once the CDC has completed its investigation.
Anthrax causes an acute bacterial disease that can be fatal if not treated. It is not contagious but can be inhaled, ingested or transmitted through contact on the skin. Someone who is infected may not show symptoms for weeks.