Ineffective procedures at the Dugway Proving Grounds military lab in Utah are partly in blame for the release of live anthrax spores earlier this year, according to a report released Thursday.
But the Defense Department’s 30-day review failed to find a single root cause behind the shipment of live anthrax to 86 labs in 21 states and the District of Columbia across the U.S., as well as seven foreign countries around the world.
The military ships dead anthrax to labs both to calibrate equipment that detects the spores and to research and develop equipment to better protect troops and the American public from a biological attack with anthrax, which can be fatal. Defense Department labs kill the anthrax with gamma radiation, then culture inactivated bacteria to ensure no spores survived.
In May, however, a lab in Maryland called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to report that a sample that was supposed to be irradiated anthrax actually contained some live spores.
The Defense Department’s review of the incident found that more than half of all batches tested at Dugway — 17 out of 33 — tested positive for live anthrax, said Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work.
“Obviously, when over half of those anthrax batches that were presumed to be inactivated instead prove to contain live spores, we have a major problem,” Mr. Work said.
Researchers at Dugway used only 5 percent of the total sample when culturing to check for total inactivation — the lowest among Defense Department labs, the report said. It also showed that employees at Dugway only waited a short time between irradiation and viability testing.
“The development and implementation of ineffective irradiation and viability testing procedures took place over the last decade; this represents an institutional problem at [Dugway Proving Grounds] and does not necessarily reflect on any one individual,” the report states.
Four Defense Department labs irradiate and ship anthrax for research. So far, all 86 samples that contained live bacteria came from the Dugway facility.
Mr. Work said there were indicators of a problem at Dugway that officials there should have caught. When asked by investigators how often samples came back positive after irradiation, employees at Dugway said only about 2 or 3 percent tested positive for live spores. Records, however, showed that number was actually closer to 20 percent of samples that were still alive after irradiation.
As a result, the Army is launching an internal investigation that could find an individual at fault for the mistake and take corrective action, Mr. Work said.
Mr. Work also said he expected the number of labs that received live spores to increase as the CDC continues its investigation of secondary labs that my have received a sample from other labs.
The report also placed part of the blame on the broader “scientific community” for not developing better protocols for killing anthrax and called on scientists to issue standards for irradiation and testing.
Mr. Work said he was “shocked” to learn that there was no standard in the scientific community to deal with agents like anthrax. He was also surprised to learn that there was no standardization even among Defense Department labs to use the same procedures.
“This review taught us lessons we needed to learn. We were quite frankly surprised by them,” Mr. Work said. “They identified institutional and procedural failures we urgently need to address. We are shocked by these failures.”
Mr. Work said he has tasked Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall to come up with a standard to kill and test anthrax to be used across all four military labs, which fall under difference chains of command and different services.
The current moratorium on shipping or working with inactivated anthrax will continue until Mr. Kendall deems that records have been made to make it safe again, Mr. Work said. Research with live anthrax, however, will continue.
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