According to a disturbing admission by the Pentagon on Wednesday, a military facility in Utah accidentally shipped live samples of a bioweapon to private labs in nine states and a US air base in Pyeongtae, South Korea.
[Update: It’s now been confirmed that live anthrax samples were mistakenly sent to Australia as well.]
The Pentagon called the accident an “inadvertent transfer of samples containing live Bacillus anthracis (anthrax),” which is potentially fatal when exposed to humans and left untreated.
A Department of Defense lab in Dugway, Utah was responsible for the egregious error, but according to Pentagon press secretary Colonel Steve Warren, there is “no known risk to the general public.”
Lab workers who may have been exposed to the bioweapon have shown no indications of infection, but whether any preventive measures had been initiated remains unknown.
The Dugway lab had been “working as part of a DoD effort to develop a field-based test to identify biological threats in the environment,” and intended to send only dead or inactive anthrax bacteria. Pentagon officials are cooperating with a CDC investigation into the alarming error, and as Col. Warren stated, “Out of an abundance of caution, (the Defense Department) has stopped the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation.”
A defense official said labs receiving the live anthrax samples were located in California, Texas, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, though no specific details were given. On Friday, the Maryland lab reported the military’s mistake to the CDC and the other facilities had been alerted by midday Saturday.
Just last year, a CDC lab mistakenly sent live anthrax to one of its other facilities, which was not properly equipped — and therefore not authorized — to handle live bioagent. The receiving lab was working on a project with mass spectrometry to create “a faster way to detect anthrax compared to conventional methods” – and because the samples were believed inactive, they were transported through the hallways. Exposed staff had to be given anthrax vaccines and antibiotics as a precautionary measure, though no illnesses or environmental contamination resulted from the bungle.
A third mishap with a dangerous bioagent occurred when the CDC influenza lab accidentally cross-contaminated an inactive culture with a highly infectious H5N1 bird flu pathogen. This was subsequently sent to a USDA lab facility, and though no illness resulted, that CDC lab was shut down pending the establishment of “adequate procedures” and completion of an investigation and review of the incident.
Further investigation will undoubtedly reveal more detail, but one thing is strikingly clear: stricter safety guidelines for facilities handling such deadly materials must be implemented — and followed.