Health News

Faulty protocols behind live anthrax shipments to labs: Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The shipment of live anthrax spores to researchers in the United States and seven other countries was “a failure” that exposed “a major problem” in Defense Department handling of the deadly bacteria, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said on Thursday.

Releasing a 38-page report on the investigation of the shipments to researchers at 86 facilities, Work said that although few live spores were found in the samples and no one was infected, the incident raised huge concerns.

“By any measure this was a massive institutional failure with a potentially dangerous biotoxin,” he told a Pentagon news conference. “The first thing we had to know was: Why did it happen?”

He said the investigation into the shipments of live anthrax, which were first discovered in late May, uncovered no single root cause for the problem. Instead, officials found that ineffective protocols plus the practice of inactivating large batches of anthrax at a single facility had led to the problem.

Four Defense Department facilities ship inactivated anthrax to research labs in the United States and abroad to help develop medical countermeasures to protect troops in the event an adversary uses anthrax as a biological weapon.

Work said a surprising finding of the investigation was that the broader scientific community lacked the technical information to guide the development of effective protocols for inactivating anthrax spores. As a result, the four Defense Department labs created their own protocols.

All four labs followed their protocols, but they were different at each site. At one, Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, the doses of radiation failed to sterilize the anthrax spores, and testing done afterward failed to detect the live spores, the report said.

Work said that was partly because of the size of the batch and the short time between irradiating the anthrax and testing it again to see if live spores still existed. The report found anthrax is hard to kill and can repair itself in some cases.

The inadvertent shipment of live anthrax spores came to light on May 22 when a private company notified the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that inactivated spores in its possession were live.

The investigation found live spores were sent from Dugway to labs in 20 states and the District of Columbia, plus Japan, Britain, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Italy and Germany.

“Of the total batches in Dugway’s inventory, more than half tested positive,” Work said. “Obviously when over half of those anthrax batches that were presumed to be inactivated instead are proved to contain live spores, we have a major problem.”

The deputy defense chief said the number of research facilities that received spores from Dugway could still grow because some facilities shared them with fellow researchers.

He said he had directed Army Secretary John McHugh to conduct a formal investigation of the actions that led to the unintended shipment of live anthrax.

“This was a failure that the Department of Defense is taking full responsibility for and we need to ... establish procedures that will make sure this won’t happen again,” he said.

Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Eric Beech, Peter Cooney and Andrew Hay