An Army testing facility in Utah mistakenly sent live anthrax samples without proper safeguards to as many as 51 commercial companies, academic institutions and federal laboratories, and that total is expected to increase, a widening Pentagon investigation has found.
Officials said Wednesday that the labs identified so far are scattered across 17 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Canada, Australia and South Korea, suggesting a systemic lapse in the military’s program to study and build defenses against biological weapons agents, including anthrax.
The inquiry by the Pentagon and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the largest of its kind since letters carrying powdered anthrax were mailed to members of Congress and the media shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The FBI ultimately traced the spores, which killed five people and infected 17 others, to a scientist at an Army lab in Maryland.
Investigators have scrambled over the last 10 days to determine the size and scope of the current problem, which involves sealed vials containing frozen anthrax that were shipped from the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground to federal labs and other facilities participating in government-backed studies.
Officials say no one has developed an anthrax infection from the shipments, but 31 military and civilian lab workers who handled the vials are being treated with antibiotics for potential exposure.
Robert Work, the deputy secretary of Defense, told reporters Wednesday that investigators had yet to determine how many labs received the live anthrax or exactly how the error happened, but said they had found no sign of tampering or other foul play.
He and other officials said that sending the infectious material via FedEx and other commercial shipping companies posed no threat to the public because the vials were properly sealed. Each vial contained 1 milliliter — about one-fifth of a teaspoon — of liquid anthrax.
Work said he aimed to complete the review at the end of June. “We are working with urgency,” he said.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, a medical association based in Arlington, Va., said anthrax was regularly sent to labs for research on detection systems, protective clothing and vaccines. Vials containing other disease agents, including HIV and tuberculosis, are also shipped, he noted.
“There’s an entire network of labs dedicated to this sort of work,” he said. “But biosafety is of utmost importance. When you have lapses in biosafety, situations like this can happen.”
More than 320 labs are registered in the United States to work with the most deadly biological agents, including anthrax.
The U.S. labs that received the suspect shipments are in Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.
Normally, anthrax samples are irradiated to render them inactive. It’s not yet clear whether the radiation failed, or why researchers at Dugway did not detect the live anthrax before it was shipped.
“Whatever they did, it is insufficient,” said Paul Keim, a researcher at Northern Arizona University who worked on the 2001 anthrax investigation. “It’s embarrassing, but it isn’t dangerous to the public. It’s a failure of the safety systems, and there should be severe consequences.”
Four U.S. military research labs grow or store anthrax spores for study, including Dugway, and investigators have begun testing more than 400 batches that previously were declared inactive to see whether they pose a danger. Researchers were alarmed when the first four batches they checked all tested positive.
“We felt that it was an inactivated and safe ... collection of spores,” Work said. “It turned out not to be the case. That immediately started the wheels turning within the department so that we could try to characterize the problem.”
He said he expected the number of U.S. labs affected to increase as other batches are tested. “We have a number of lots that we need to inspect and verify, and it takes some time to actually do the test.”
The Pentagon and CDC began their investigation after a private laboratory in Maryland called the CDC on May 22 to report it had cultured one of its anthrax samples from Dugway and found live spores. The discovery came by accident, Pentagon officials said, because an inactive sample is not usually cultured.
The Pentagon last week urged all labs that had received samples labeled “inactive anthrax” to stop working with those until the investigation is complete.
Dugway is an isolated military facility in the desert of southwest Utah and is said to be as large as Rhode Island. Scientists at Dugway develop and test U.S. and allied defense systems against chemical and biological weapons.
Under normal circumstances, officials said, scientists use gamma radiation to render anthrax inactive, and then place the sample in an incubator for 10 days to ensure the spores did not multiply. At that point, each sample is given a “death certificate” and then frozen.
For shipping, the frozen vials are wrapped in a cloth, placed in resealable bags, put inside a polycarbonate container, and placed inside a box. The package is then placed inside a larger box filled with dry ice.
Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that forms anthrax, causes an acute bacterial disease that can be fatal if not treated. It is not contagious but can be inhaled, ingested or transmitted through contact on the skin. Someone who is infected may not show symptoms for weeks.
Infectious-disease professionals say anthrax is the most likely biological agent to be used in an attack because it is widely available.
President Nixon ordered a halt to U.S. development and production of germ weapons in 1969, and stockpiles were destroyed. Since then, U.S. military efforts must be aimed only at improving defenses against a biological attack.