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Anthrax episode reveals danger in government's flawed agent-handling knowledge

The aerosol generation module of the Whole System Live Agent Test at Dugway Proving Ground on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday, May 27, 2015, it is investigating what the Pentagon called an inadvertent
The aerosol generation module of the Whole System Live Agent Test at Dugway Proving Ground on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday, May 27, 2015, it is investigating what the Pentagon called an inadvertent shipment of live anthrax spores from Dugway Proving Ground to at least one "” and perhaps as many as nine "” laboratories that expected to receive dead spores.
(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The release of live anthrax spores through commercial carrier services from Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah is a sad irony.

After someone mailed anthrax to several members of Congress and media outlets via the U.S. Postal Service in 2001, funding from a variety of sources increased in an effort to better spot and control such an outbreak. As Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers, told the Guardian, this has led to a situation where today there are about 1,500 laboratories in the United States handling dangerous biological agents, with no single regulatory body laying out standard protocols.

This effort was undertaken in the interest of security and the prevention of future attacks.

And the irony is that now the government itself has sent live anthrax spores through the mail.

The more labs handle such material, the greater the risk of mistakes. And the more labs, the greater the chance of duplication, which ultimately wastes public funds.

Dugway reportedly began shipping anthrax to laboratories in March 2014. These spores first were irradiated, making them inactive. Problems came to light May 22, when workers at an undisclosed lab in Maryland reported they had received live spores. It then was learned that similar live shipments were sent to as many as 18 laboratories in nine states and South Korea.

The Army says the problem at Dugway was not caused by human error. Army chief of staff Raymond Odierno told reporters it appears personnel working with the anthrax followed all procedures correctly. This, of course, raises questions about the procedures themselves and the reliability of equipment being used, which brings the argument back to oversight and regulation.

Officials stress that the public never was in danger because of this error. That is questionable, given how a defense official told CNN at least some of the samples were sent via Federal Express. That alone seems to have put civilians at risk, should the packages have ruptured. In addition, 22 people potentially were exposed and are receiving treatment, including three civilians and four contractors, according to CNN.

A recent investigation by USA Today found “Oversight of biological research labs is fragmented, often secretive and largely self-policing… .” This mirrors the findings of the Government Accountability Office. In a report last year, it outlined the proliferation of these labs and said it found “… there was no research agenda linking all these agencies, even at the federal level, that would allow for a national needs assessment, strategic plan, or coordinated oversight.”

The Dugway error has exposed a huge weakness the government needs to fix. As the USA Today report notes, the GAO has long complained that the government itself does not know exactly how many labs are dealing with these hazardous materials.

Much of this work is, of necessity, kept secret. But that secrecy is necessary only to the extent that it keeps the nation’s enemies from learning of strategies to detect and prevent outbreaks. It should not extend to the government itself not knowing who handles hazardous agents, nor to a lack of standardized and closely monitored protocols.