Army cites deep safety flaws in probe into live anthrax shipments

Army cites deep safety flaws in probe into live anthrax shipments
© Getty Images

A brigadier general and 11 others who worked in an Army biodefense lab are facing discipline after a military review found numerous failures that led them to mistakenly shipping live anthrax to other labs for a decade.

The facility, Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, will no longer be allowed to produce pathogen specimens to ship to other facilities.

“The preponderance of evidence with respect to the investigation yielded the fact that no single event, no single individual, no groups of individuals are directly responsible for the inadvertent shipment of a small amount of active anthrax,” Army Maj. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, who led the probe, announced Friday.

“We did find through evidence that a combination of events, including gaps of science, institutional issues and personally accountability, when taken together each contributed to this event," he added.

“With respect to individual accountability, we saw failures to take action, we saw best practices by lab technicians not being used, and so the intent is to ensure that the secretary of the Army and the leadership of the Army has an opportunity to adjudicate that."

The six-month review stemmed from the discovery last year that live anthrax had ended up in 194 private, academic and federal labs in every state, three U.S. territories and nine foreign countries.

Dugway is a major testing facility for the Army’s chemical and biological defense programs. The lab shipped the anthrax spores, meant to be inert, as part of a Pentagon program established in 2003 to help other labs develop countermeasures to potential anthrax attacks.

Though the live shipments were discovered recently, they had been happening for at least a decade, said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, who led a task force that examined the Defense Department’s procedures for biological select agents and toxins.

At Dugway, the review found that the appointed biosafety officer lacked the education and training to do the job. The facility also did not have a program to routinely test surfaces to make sure contamination hadn't been spread outside special biosafety cabinets.

The review also found that some staff regularly manipulated data certifying that pathogens being shipped to other labs were killed.

Despite multiple warning signs of scientific and safety problems, the review found, top officials failed to take action.

Specifically, the review names Brig. Gen. William King IV, who commanded Dugway as a colonel from July 2009 to July 2011. King failed to take action after live anthrax shipments were found in 2009 and didn’t consider that erroneous shipments of nerve agents in 2011 were indicative of larger issues, according to the report.

Another 11 people are facing potential discipline. The secretary of the Army will decide what course of action to take from here, Ostrowski said.

“Let me be very clear, when we say held accountable it doesn’t necessarily mean remove and replace,” Ostrowski said. “If we have a situation where we have an individual who needs to be retrained, I will say he needs to be held accountable for retraining. The point is it runs the full gamut. That’s why we have a chain of command who will take a look at the actions of these individuals and adjudicate the same.”

Though Dugway will not be able to ship pathogen specimen to other labs, it will still be able to do internal testing. For now, though, a research moratorium remains in place as new procedures are established.

Among the new procedures, Spoehr said, are designating the Army surgeon general as the executive agent to integrate the inspections, establishing a Defense Department biological safety review panel with scientists from within and outside the Pentagon, reviewing requests for biological agents to see if they are valid or a less dangerous specimen can be substituted and putting in a central process to track requests and shipments of specimen.

The Pentagon and the Centers for Disease Control are also researching more effective ways to deactivate anthrax.

“We’re not going to do this with just anthrax,” said Army Maj. Gen. Brian Lein, commanding general of U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command. “Obviously anthrax is the focus of this, but the requirement on us is all of our biological select agents and toxins."

"Anything that we’re going to be shipping out, we’ve got to validate and determine, is the mechanism that we’re using actually inactivating it the level of surety that we can provide to the public and everybody else that what we’re shipping is safe and is not going to cause a challenge if it either gets into the wrong hands inadvertently or the specimen is lost,” he added.