A U.S. Army facility in Utah mistakenly sent potentially live batches of anthrax to at least 24 laboratories in several states and two foreign countries, officials said. Photo: ShutterStock / BillionPhotos.com
WASHINGTON, May 29 (UPI) -- The U.S. Army biodefense facility in Utah that mistakenly sent out potentially live batches of anthrax has sent similar shipments to dozens of private and military laboratories around the world for the last seven years, the Pentagon discovered late Friday.
The Department of Defense statement widens an investigation to include at least 24 labs in 11 states and two foreign countries -- South Korea and Australia, officials said. And there could be more.
Earlier this week, officials said live spores of anthrax were mistakenly sent to several states and a U.S. airbase in South Korea last month -- because the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah believed the bacteria had been neutralized.
Live spores were discovered at a Maryland lab that was using them to develop a new diagnostic test for anthrax. When a culture returned a positive result last week, the laboratory contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Officials said more than two dozen people have been potentially exposed to the lethal bacterial disease and are receiving treatment, including antibiotics and vaccines.
NBC News cited Defense officials as saying the spores were irradiated seven years ago -- a process intended to kill the anthrax spores. However, officials believe, the process was not successful and the spores have remained alive ever since.
The anthrax sent out was intended for use in training exercises and was believed to be harmless by those who handled the spores -- opening the possibility of exposure.
Authorities have been testing the suspect samples since the mistake was discovered earlier this week, and say so far no one has shown any signs of exposure.
Anthrax infection can occur in three ways: inhaling live spores, consuming the bacteria, and skin exposure. Inhalation anthrax is the deadliest form and more than 85 percent of those infected this way will die from it -- although the risk can be cut in half if detected and treated early. The mortality rate for gastrointestinal infection is between 25 and 60 percent.
"There is no known risk to the general public and an extremely low risk to lab workers from the department's inadvertent shipments of inactivated samples containing small numbers of live anthrax to several laboratories," the Pentagon said Friday.
The Pentagon said it has ordered a comprehensive review of all lab procedures and protocols it uses to deactivate anthrax.
To deactivate anthrax spores, the bacteria are inundated with high levels of gamma radiation that neutralizes them. Officials are trying to determine why the radiation didn't work in these cases and whether the live spores resulted from human or procedural error.
The CDC, which is investigating the matter, has said the general public is not in danger of exposure and those who handled and were near the anthrax are being closely monitored. And all labs handling any anthrax labeled as "inactive" have been urged by the Pentagon to suspend using the substance until further notice.
"The department takes this matter very seriously and is acting with urgency to address this matter and ... expects review findings within 30 days," the Pentagon said in a statement Friday.
The Defense Department also ordered all U.S. military labs with "inactive" anthrax spores to test them.
The oversight process is being supervised by Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, the second-in-command at the Pentagon, and Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall.
The Pentagon said it will perform its own investigation after the CDC investigation is complete.