July 28, 2015 / 9:55 PM / 5 years ago

U.S. Army lab faulted over lax anthrax procedure

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Techniques used by a U.S. Army laboratory in Utah failed to neutralize live anthrax spores on many occasions over more than a decade and the lab should have realized the procedure was inadequate, a top health official told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Despite warning signs, the lab, at the Dugway Proving Ground, persisted with the same process for inactivating anthrax samples for researchers, resulting in the unintentional shipment of live spores of the deadly bacteria to 192 labs in the United States and abroad, officials said.

“This hearing is astounding, honestly,” Representative Larry Bucshon, a heart surgeon, told witnesses during testimony on an investigation into the shipments. “This is anthrax. We should have had policies for decades. It’s ridiculous.”

A Pentagon probe of the shipments found that scientific information on inactivating the bacteria was inadequate to formulate effective protocols to carry out the task. In the end, each defense lab followed its own procedures. All the samples with live anthrax came from Dugway.

Anthrax spores, which are difficult to kill, are neutralized with doses of radiation. Samples are then taken and cultured to see if they continue growing. If not, they are considered dead.

Neutralized anthrax is sent to researchers who work on cures and defenses against biological attacks. The effort was stepped up after a spate of incidents in 2001 in which anthrax-laced letters were mailed to senators and news media offices, killing five people and sickening 17.

Dan Sosin, a public health official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it should have been clear the process used at Dugway was inadequate to neutralize anthrax.

“The failure of inactivation was evident because growth was being detected on multiple production runs,” he told the congressional hearing.

“These runs were routinely sent back for additional radiation. It should have been seen for what it was: an indication that the margin of safety with the method was not sufficient,” he said.

Gregory Demske, chief counsel to the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, said Dugway had been urged to re-evaluate its procedures in 2007 after it had been found to have shipped anthrax with live spores to a research facility.

Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey and Steve Orlofsky

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