The Defense Department accidentally shipped potentially live anthrax to at least 51 facilities in 17 states, D.C. and three foreign countries, a significant increase from initial reports as the agency has begun testing its 400 samples of dead anthrax to check for any more live spores.
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work predicted the number would continue to rise, but said the mistake posed little health risks to the public. Thirty-one people are taking the antibiotic Cipro for possible exposure, including 23 Defense Department employees.
“We have to get to the bottom of what caused this issue,” Mr. Work said. “There is no indication that this happened as a result of anyone deliberately doing this and this point.”
Defense distributes the samples to labs working on vaccinations and other protective measures against biological weapons threats. Inactive samples are also used to calibrate systems designed to detect if there is anthrax present in an environment.
On May 22, a civilian lab in Maryland contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to say that it had received live anthrax spores in a shipment that was supposed to contain only bacteria that had been killed with radiation. After contacting other labs, the department at first found live samples in nine states, prompting a review of the processes in place to irradiate anthrax.
Mr. Work promised to post daily updates as test results become available to defense.gov/lab review to keep the public informed. Preliminary results of the Defense Department review are expected within 30 days, while the CDC investigation will take several weeks.
Live samples are suspected at labs in Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, Tennessee, New York, California, Virginia, Massachusetts, Utah, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina and the District of Columbia. Suspected live samples were also sent to South Korea, Canada and Australia.
The Defense Department has not yet released a list of facilities affected, but some include Osan Air Base in South Korea, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency’s off-site testing facility, and the four military labs who ship live anthrax — Naval Medical Research Center, Fort Detrick, Edgewood Chemical Biological Center and Dugway Proving Grounds.
So far, all live samples have originated at Dugway, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said.
The military has followed the same procedure to kill anthrax for a decade, using the inactive spores to develop protective equipment and calibrate tools to test if anthrax is present. Lab workers irradiate the bacterial sample with gamma rays, then culture the inactive spores and wait 10 days to ensure there is no growth, said Cmdr. Franca Jones, the director of medical programs in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs.
Once the bacteria are verified inactive — including the creation of a death certificate for the lot that is signed by multiple people — the sample is shipped to the more than 300 labs around the world authorized to experiment with inactive anthrax, Cmdr. Jones said.
The goal of the department review is to determine why the gamma ray radiation didn’t kill the anthrax spores and why culturing that is done before shipment to double check for any live spores didn’t catch them in these batches, Mr. Work said