Lawmakers demand answers on anthrax scare

Lawmakers demand answers on anthrax scare
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Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are demanding answers from the government's top health and defense officials about how the Army accidentally shipped live anthrax to research facilities in nine states and South Korea.

Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) sent letters to the heads of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Department of Defense on Thursday asking for personal briefings about the incident.

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"The Department’s inadvertent transfer of live anthrax samples, just like similar incidents at the CDC last year, raise serious safety concerns about the sufficiency of inactivation protocols and procedures for studying dangerous pathogens," the committee leaders wrote in a statement.

The Energy and Commerce Committee has already investigated the mishandling of potentially deadly biomedical materials by the CDC over the last several years.

Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonAl Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Democrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 Poll: Six Democrats lead Trump in Florida match-ups MORE (D-Fla.) also penned a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh asking for an explanation of the safety breach.

“Specifically, it is crucial that the Department of Army explain the nature and scope of these biological weapons-related activities and the measures used to keep the public and its personnel safe,” Nelson, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote Thursday in a letter to McHugh.

Nelson said he wants the Army to brief him and his staff about the incident “at the earliest possible opportunity” and that the service should be prepared to “discuss its standards for how samples are shipped to other labs.”

The Army also “must explain what steps were taken to contain the release of these samples and provide treatment to any affected service members,” he added.

On Wednesday, a Defense Department official said an anthrax sample was prepared at the Dugway Army facility in Utah as part of routine research, and then shipped — some via FedEx — to the other laboratories. All of the samples were supposed to be dead or inactive after being irradiated. 

The labs are located in Texas, Maryland, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, Tennessee, New York, California and Virginia. The facility in Maryland reported receiving spores that were still alive.

On Thursday morning, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said he was “99.9 percent confident that nobody’s in danger” and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was working with service to contain the mishap.

Nelson said the incident “represents a serious breach of trust in the United States Army’s obligation to keep our citizens and service members safe.”

The shipments to a South Korea in particular “weaken the United States’ credibility as a global leader in chemical weapons control,” he added.

“While the Army says it is confident no one has been harmed, it needs to tell us what is being done immediately to prevent this from happening again,” Nelson warned. 

— This story was updated at 6 p.m. Sarah Ferris contributed.