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The Pentagon Anthrax Scandal Is Getting Worse by the Day
U.S. Defense Department officials said on Wednesday that a total of 51 laboratories in 17 states, the District of Columbia, and three foreign countries have received potentially dangerous samples of anthrax from a U.S. Army lab in Dugway, Utah.
U.S. Defense Department officials said on Wednesday that a total of 51 laboratories in 17 states, the District of Columbia, and three foreign countries have received potentially dangerous samples of anthrax from a U.S. Army lab in Dugway, Utah — dramatically expanding the scope of a scandal that raises serious questions about the Pentagon’s ability to properly oversee its stocks of deadly pathogens.
So far, a total of 10 samples tested in the United States have come up positive for live anthrax, a sharp increase from the single case at a Maryland laboratory that was disclosed last week. Pentagon officials have continued to insist that the miscues pose no risk to the general public, but Defense Department officials have had to repeatedly acknowledge that their earlier statements about the extent of the problems have proven false.
While the number of potentially affected labs has shot from 12 to 51 over the past day, “we expect this number may rise” as more testing is done, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday.
The samples sent to Canada, South Korea, and Australia are also being tested.
Domestically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are scrambling to test a total of 400 separate “batches” of anthrax at four Defense Department labs, though so far all of the positive samples have come from the one in Dugway, Work said.
While all shipments of anthrax from government labs have been halted, no one at Dugway has yet been reprimanded for the shipments — though many there may eventually be disciplined. Investigators have been told to report back to Work by the end of June with their findings, and he said decisions about how to move forward will be made then.
Work stressed that at this point in the investigation, “there is absolutely nothing to indicate” that the shipments were an act of terrorism or were done deliberately.
That isn’t terribly reassuring, since it would mean that the samples were instead sent out because of simple inattention or incompetence.
“This incident makes a complete hash” of the stringent security protocols put in place since the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001 that left five people dead and sickened 17 others, Richard Ebright, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University told Foreign Policy.
It takes an extremely small amount of live anthrax to produce “a limitless quantity of the material,” he added. That, in turn, means “that every institution that received this received live anthrax, and every individual who had access to the material had the ability to remove, transfer, sell, or use the seedstock for biological weapons. This is the real scandal here.”
Work was joined at the briefing by the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, and U.S. Navy Cmdr. Franca Jones, who oversees the department’s chemical and biological defense office.
None of the officials could identify what exactly went wrong at Dugway in the process of killing the anthrax spores and testing them before shipment, but Jones did note that samples have been heading out of the lab since 2005, which gives a sense of the sheer scope of the task facing the government in tackling the issue of ultimate responsibility, and what protocols need to change.
Al Mauroni, director of the U.S. Air Force’s Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies, also believes there was little chance that “Something was going to get loose to the public. The risk to the public is much less than some make it out to be.”
But the number of labs that are working with chemical and biological materials has swelled since 2001, with the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services issuing a number of grants to labs for medical-biological countermeasures, he said.
Kendall said that government and commercial labs have different safety and security protocols for how they conduct their work, and that the investigation will look at the possibility of bringing them more into line with one another, thus making oversight easier.
The Defense Department issued new guidance in 2008 as to how U.S. military labs should handle materials like anthrax and other biological warfare agents, but it is unclear if the workers at Dugway failed to follow these guidelines.
These regulations stem from the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, in which five envelopes containing live anthrax were sent to news outlets and two more to Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The FBI eventually accused Dr. Bruce Ivins, a former Army researcher who worked with anthrax at Fort Detrick, of sending the envelopes, but he killed himself before he could be formally charged. The new guidance, Mauroni said, was “very stringent.”
Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images