The Cable

Pentagon Mistakenly Ships Live Anthrax Across Country

A Defense Department laboratory in Utah inadvertently sent a live anthrax sample to a civilian laboratory in Maryland this week, military officials disclosed on Wednesday. The live anthrax had been irradiated at the Utah facility and was presumed to have been neutralized, but an investigation is ongoing as to how the military’s supposedly stringent testing ...

A soldier tests chemicals
A soldier tests chemicals

A Defense Department laboratory in Utah inadvertently sent a live anthrax sample to a civilian laboratory in Maryland this week, military officials disclosed on Wednesday.

The live anthrax had been irradiated at the Utah facility and was presumed to have been neutralized, but an investigation is ongoing as to how the military’s supposedly stringent testing system failed to pick up that at least some of the anthrax was still active. Officials said no lab workers had been infected but declined to comment on whether the sample had been destroyed.

In addition to the live sample, a Pentagon official said other trace amounts of the bacteria were sent to at least eight other civilian labs around the country, and while none of those samples have yet shown signs of being active, testing is ongoing.

Personnel from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are tracking down and testing the other eight known samples to ensure they contained no live bacteria. But a defense official warned that the final tally of labs that had received samples of anthrax was likely to grow higher in the days ahead.

Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren insisted that there was “no known risk to the general public, and there are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection in potentially exposed lab workers.” He added that “out of an abundance of caution, DoD has stopped the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation.”

Still, the miscue is a PR nightmare for the military, which is likely to face angry questions from Capitol Hill in the days ahead about how it lost track of a sample of the potentially lethal bacteria. In 2001, envelopes containing anthrax spores were sent to the offices of several media organizations — including the news divisions of the three major broadcast networks — and Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Five people died, including several of the postal workers who had handled the letters. The FBI eventually said the attacks were carried out by an Army biodefense expert named Bruce Ivins, but he took his own life in 2008 and was never formally charged in the case.

Photo credit: U.S. Army

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