Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work delivers a briefing Wednesday at the Pentagon concerning the ongoing review associated with the accidental shipments of potentially live anthrax to more than 50 labs in 17 states, Washington, D.C., and three foreign countries. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense
WASHINGTON, June 3 (UPI) -- Suspect shipments of what was believed to be neutralized and inert anthrax have been sent to twice as many U.S. and foreign labs over the past decade than first believed, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
The Department of Defense initially learned last month that the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah had sent potentially live batches of the deadly bacteria to about two dozen labs in several states and a military base in South Korea.
A few days later, the Pentagon expanded the list to include more labs -- including one in Australia. On Wednesday, Defense officials widened the probe to include 51 labs in 17 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada.
The states affected by the suspect shipments are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Ohio and North Carolina, the Pentagon said.
Officials said several of the labs that received the shipments in April were working with the Defense Department to develop a new diagnostic test to identify biological threats, such as anthrax -- a bacterial agent that can infect humans in one of three ways: By inhaling, consuming or coming into skin contact with live spores.
Respiratory anthrax is the most deadly form of exposure. Without immediate treatment, more than 85 percent of people who inhale live spores will die. Gastrointestinal and cutaneous exposures are less fatal.
So far, 23 Defense employees and eight civilians have been treated for possible exposure. Officials said they have been given antibiotics and vaccines to minimize any potential health hazards, but have emphasized that the risk posed by the faulty shipments is "very low."
"We expect this number may rise because the scope of the investigation is going on," said Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, who is overseeing a Pentagon review of the matter. "There are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection among any workers in any of the labs that have received these samples ... The concentration of these samples are too low to infect the average healthy individual."
Navy Cmdr. Franca Jones, chief of medical programs for chemical and biological defense, has said there is "zero" risk to those who handled the anthrax shipments or the general public.
The anthrax, which officials say was put through a neutralization process in 2008, had been shipped to military and private labs for training. One of the labs, in Maryland, notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when a culture indicated its shipment contained live spores of the bacteria.
An investigation is being conducted by the CDC concurrent to the Pentagon review, which officials say is evaluating whether the shipping of the live anthrax was a result of human or procedural error. The standard process used to deactivate anthrax -- which involves saturating the bacteria with high levels of gamma radiation -- is undergoing a root cause evaluation to determine if it sufficiently kills the live spores.
In addition to the neutralization process, Defense officials want to know why post-inactivation sterility testing did not detect the presence of live anthrax.
Work said Wednesday that the Pentagon is taking every step necessary to ensure transparency and accountability in the official review.
"Public safety is paramount," he said. "That's the No. 1 thing on our mind. Two, we have to get to the bottom of what caused this issue, and we are doing this."
Shipments of neutralized anthrax have been shipped by the U.S. military to public and private labs around the world for years for training and research purposes. The Pentagon is working to determine how many of those shipments may have included anthrax that was mistakenly deemed inert.
"We felt that [the anthrax] was an inactivated and safe ... collection of spores," Work said. "But 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."
Every lab that has received a suspect shipment has been urged by the Pentagon to stop working on the anthrax until further notice.
The Pentagon said results of its review of procedures and protocols involving the sterilization and shipping of anthrax will be released within the next 30 days. Officials are also reviewing laboratory biohazard safety protocols and procedures not specific to anthrax, as well.
Work said the Pentagon is fully cooperating with the CDC investigation. After it is complete, the Pentagon will launch its own investigation into the matter.
"We are acting with urgency," Work said. "We are going after it as fast as we can."
The United States removed anthrax from its biological weapons stockpile in 1972 after President Richard Nixon signed a biological warfare disarmament accord. Since then, incidents of anthrax exposure have been extremely rare.
Five people died and 17 others were infected in September and October 2001 when letters containing live anthrax spores were sent to several members of Congress and the media. The sender was never caught or formally identified, although federal officials investigated two possible suspects. The first was ultimately exonerated, and the second died in 2008.
This is not the first time the Army's Dugway facility has been involved in a mistake involving chemical or biological weapons. In 1968, more than 6,000 sheep near the facility were killed after the Army conducted open-air tests of deadly VX nerve agent.