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Pentagon: Live anthrax samples mistakenly shipped from Dugway Proving Ground

WASHINGTON — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday it is investigating what the Pentagon called an inadvertent shipment of live anthrax spores from an Army facility in Utah to government and commercial laboratories in as many as nine states, as well as one overseas, that expected to receive dead spores.

"At this time we do not suspect any risk to the general public," CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben said.

A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, said the suspected live anthrax samples were shipped from Dugway Proving Ground using a commercial delivery service.

Warren said the government has confirmed one recipient, a laboratory in Maryland, received live spores. The CDC has asked for preventative treatment for four workers who were in close proximity to the live samples.

It is suspected but not yet confirmed that anthrax sent to labs in as many as eight other states also contained live spores, Warren said.

Later, Warren said an anthrax sample from the same batch at Dugway also was sent to a U.S. military laboratory at Osan Air Base in South Korea. No personnel there have shown signs of exposure, he said, and the sample was destroyed.

"There is no known risk to the general public, and there are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection in potentially exposed lab workers," Warren said.

The anthrax samples were shipped from Dugway to government and commercial labs in Texas, Maryland, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, Tennessee, New York, California and Virginia.

The Defense Department, acting "out of an abundance of caution," has halted "the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation," Warren said.

In February, the Dugway facility debuted its $39 million biological weapons testing chamber, built following a 2002 directive upping biological warfare readiness. The chamber is the largest of its kind, designed to test how well other biological agent detectors function, and is capable of precision testing under a variety of conditions.

At the February ribbon cutting, Dugway's commander, Col. Ronald Fizer, said it is impossible to overestimate the value of the chamber, which can test biological agents such as anthrax, plague or ricin.

"It is a huge deal," he said. "We have not had the ability to evaluate these systems in a live environment before. This allows us to have a high degree of confidence in our systems."

Contact with anthrax spores can cause severe illness.

Fizer said Wednesday he is concerned about the error, especially considering safety protocols are in place to prevent it from happening. He said the information he could release is limited while the federal government investigates.

"Until their investigation is complete, I won't be able to give you any answers on exactly how it happened," Fizer said.

The colonel said he couldn't confirm which safety measures failed to prevent the shipment from Dugway Proving Ground, if any.

"They will confirm whether there was a violation of protocol in sending these out, or in fact there's something else that happened," he said.

Fizer echoed Warren's statement that no lab workers have been infected as a result of the anthrax shipment and that the current risk is minimal.

"The sample size was small enough that there should be no risk to personnel," Fizer said.

Harben said one of the laboratories contacted the CDC to request "technical consultation." It was working as part of a Pentagon effort to develop a new diagnostic test to identify biological threats, she said.

"Although an inactivated agent was expected, the lab reported they were able to grow live Bacillus anthracis," she said, referring to the bacteria that cause anthrax disease.

The CDC is working with state and federal agencies on an investigation with the labs that received samples from the Defense Department, she said.

Harben said all samples involved in the investigation will be securely transferred to the CDC or other laboratories for further testing.

As of Wednesday, the Utah Department of Health had not been involved in the investigation, according to Susan Mottice, an epidemiologist at the department.

Mottice was unfamiliar with the strain of anthrax that had been transported. A person can be exposed to anthrax by touch, eating meat from animals who had grazed on anthrax-contaminated land, or inhaling a pulverized form of the biological agent.

The incubation period after being exposed to anthrax is about a week, Mottice said.

"This is a very rare illness. It's not something people are going to get on their daily walk or something," she said. "This is really not an issue other than for the people who have already been notified that they have been exposed."

Mottice said she understands the need for laboratories to be able to ship and test various biological agents.

Contributing: Ben Lockhart


Twitter: benlockhartnews