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Pentagon: Labs May Have Shipped Plague Bacteria

Another scandal hits the U.S. Army's laboratories.


In a new scandal involving the Defense Department’s flawed handling of potentially deadly pathogens, the Pentagon has halted all research at nine military labs amid reports that some facilities may have inadvertently shipped, or improperly stored, samples of the bacteria that causes plague.

The shutdown comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted a variety of shoddy safety practices during an inspection of the U.S. Army’s Edgewood lab in Maryland on Aug. 17, which led to Army Secretary John McHugh ordering a halt to work at the labs on Sept. 2.

Officials detected anthrax bacteria on the floors of two rooms where it shouldn’t have been, USA Today first reported on Thursday, but there is no word as to how many labs, in how many U.S. states or foreign countries, may have received shipments of the yersinia pestis bacteria, which causes plague. Those infected with the bacteria can develop a variety of diseases, including bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, which is an infection of the lungs, or septicemic plague, which may cause the skin and other tissues to turn turn black. If left untreated, pneumonic plague proves fatal in about 93 percent of cases.

The CDC has also said it is concerned over the labs’ handling of other specimens, including Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus and Eastern equine encephalitis virus, which may be deadly if untreated.

Addressing reporters on Thursday, Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook confirmed that investigators at Edgewood had discovered “a form a plague that was not in a containment area, but in a freezer outside of the containment area, in a controlled setting.” Initial testing by the Army has determined that it was a non-infectious strain of plague.

He added that the military is “working collaboratively with the CDC” on the investigation into the potential mishandling of the bacteria, but there is “nothing to suggest risk to the health of workers or to the general public” at this time. He added that the investigation should be wrapped up in October.

The revelation comes on the heels of a similar scandal that broke in May, when it was revealed that an Army lab at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah had been sending live samples of anthrax to military and civilian labs around the world for at least a decade.

A report released by the Defense Department in July concluded that there is no “single root cause” explaining how Army lab workers failed to detect the live anthrax samples. Up to this point, it has been confirmed that the lab at Dugway had sent live anthrax spores to a total of 194 labs in all 50 U.S. states and 9 countries.

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