Senators want Pentagon answers on 'troubling' anthrax shipments

Senators want Pentagon answers on 'troubling' anthrax shipments
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Leaders of the Senate Homeland Security Committee want answers from the Pentagon on how it accidentally shipped samples of live anthrax to laboratories in the U.S. and overseas. 

Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonOvernight Cybersecurity: Panel pushes agencies on dropping Kaspersky software | NC county won't pay ransom to hackers | Lawmakers sound alarm over ISIS 'cyber caliphate' GOP chairman warns of ISIS's ‘cyber caliphate’ Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him MORE (R-Wis.) and Ranking Member Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Overnight Cybersecurity: Mueller probe cost .7M in early months | Senate confirms Homeland Security nominee | Consumer agency limits data collection | Arrest in Andromeda botnet investigation Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank MORE (D-Del.), whose states host labs that received samples of the potentially deadly pathogen, called the shipments "troubling." 

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"There is no doubt our nation needs to be doing legitimate research into the threat and mitigation of anthrax, but the reports of these accidental shipments of live anthrax are more than troubling," Johnson said in a statement.

"This incident has endangered lives, and the investigation and decontamination efforts will likely stretch on for months," he said, and pledged to hold any responsible parties accountable "for this threat to the public." 

Carper called it "critical" to understand how the incident occurred and to take steps to prevent it happening again.

"We know all too well that the potential impact of biological threats on our communities can be severe – or even deadly," he said. 

The two sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Friday, asking for a response. 

"This incident, which impacted laboratories located in Wisconsin and Delaware among other states, may have threatened countless human lives and caused millions of dollars in damage related to follow-up testing and decontamination," the letter read.

The Pentagon announced on Wednesday that a military laboratory at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah accidentally shipped out live anthrax samples to labs in nine different states and on a U.S. military base in South Korea. 

Labs were located in California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas, and at the Osan Air Base in South Korea. Those labs turned over those samples to other labs, affecting as many as 18 facilities. 

The accident came to the Pentagon's attention after a private lab in Maryland notified the Pentagon on May 22 that it had received a live sample, which was supposed to be inactive. The Pentagon then contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on May 23. 

Twenty-two lab personnel at Osan and four personnel within the U.S. are undergoing treatment for potential exposure. 

The Pentagon said Wednesday that there was "no known risk to the general public, and there are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection in potentially exposed lab workers." 

Defense officials said the lab at Dugway sent out the samples in an effort to develop a field-based test to identify biological threats in the environment. The samples were reportedly shipped through FedEx, a commercial delivery service.

"Out of an abundance of caution, DoD has stopped the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation," said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren. 

The CDC announced on Friday it has launched an investigation into how the accidental shipment happened, and if any of the other labs besides the one in Maryland discovered their samples were live. 

But Johnson and Carper said they also want answers by June 15 from Carter on why the Pentagon sent out the anthrax, the exact timelines for the accidental mailings, what labs received them, how they were discovered, and what disciplinary actions are planned, among other questions. 

Also on Friday, Reuters reported that the lab at Dugway also sent live anthrax sample to a lab in Australia in 2008, raising questions about the Pentagon's handling of the agent. 

"An extraordinary number of policies and protocols are in place across the federal government to ensure that biological select agents and toxins are properly handled, shipped, and destroyed," Johnson and Carper said in the letter. 

"A potential breach of these protocols is of great concern, and we urge your Department to fully cooperate in the investigation of this incident to ensure that a similar one never occurs again."