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US Report: Live Anthrax Samples Shipped to Dozens of Labs

FILE - A scientist examines a package for anthrax spores.
FILE - A scientist examines a package for anthrax spores.

A new report finds that the U.S. military mistakenly has shipped live anthrax samples to dozens of labs in the United States and to seven other nations for more than a decade.

The Defense Department report, released Thursday, said live anthrax spores were sent to 86 labs in 20 states and Washington, D.C., plus facilities in Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea.

The investigation did not identify a root cause for the faulty shipments, saying defense personnel appear to have followed correct procedures to make the anthrax samples inactive before they were sent.

But it found "inherent deficiencies in protocols," including radiation that failed to kill the spores and testing afterward that failed to detect their viability.

The spores did not pose a risk to the general public, according to the report. "Nonetheless, the shipment of live [anthrax] samples ... at any concentration is a serious breach of regulations," it said.

At a press briefing Thursday, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work called the program "a failure" that exposed "a major problem" in the Defense Department's handling of anthrax, a potentially deadly bacterium.

"By any measure this was a massive institutional failure with a potentially dangerous biotoxin," Work said. "The first thing we had to know was: Why did it happen?"

He said everyone is extremely fortunate that the anthrax samples came in minimal amounts of liquid form.

"Anthrax has spores and is therefore generally transmitted through spores in the air [that] you breathe," Work said. "The samples were handled in laboratory environments by technicians and workers that were used to handling hazardous material, and there were extremely low concentrations of spores in these samples. This helps explain to us why over a 12-year period there has never been a single incident of infection. We are very, very confident that because of these unique circumstances, there were no known risks to the broader public."

The live spores originated from one U.S. military site, Dugway Proving Ground in the western state of Utah. It is one of four Defense Department facilities that ship inactivated anthrax to labs in the U.S. and abroad to help develop medical countermeasures to protect the U.S. military in case anthrax is used as a biological weapon.

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

U.S. officials subsequently ordered an investigation. An initial review said 51 labs in the U.S. and three other countries — Australia, Canada and South Korea — might have received the potentially dangerous shipment.

Work said those numbers could grow as the investigation proceeds.

Contact with live anthrax can lead to a severe flu-like illness that could be fatal if not treated early.

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