Army investigating fault for accidental anthrax shipments

Army investigating fault for accidental anthrax shipments
© Getty Images

Pentagon officials announced Thursday the results of an internal review into how an Army lab in Utah accidentally shipped live samples of anthrax to more than 80 labs in the U.S. and seven countries, and said the Army has launched an investigation to find out who exactly is responsible. 

The review found that an Army lab at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah had accidentally sent out live samples of anthrax to at least 86 labs in seven countries due to insufficient procedures to kill the spores and then test them afterward before sending them out to other labs.


The labs that received the spores may have turned them over to other labs, so the number of labs that received the deadly pathogen is expected to increase, said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, who briefed Pentagon reporters Thursday. 

"By any measure, by any measure, this was a massive institutional failure with a potentially dangerous biotoxin," said Work. 

The spores were sent as part of a Pentagon program established in 2003 to help other labs develop countermeasures to potential Anthrax attacks. 

Work said part of the problem was that there was no national standard on killing anthrax spores. 

"The procedures were the primary culprit," he said. However, he added, "We believe there were indicators that people should have known there was a problem."  

Work said that the lab at Dugway produced a very high volume of spores but tested a low number to verify they were dead. The time between killing the spores and sending them out was very short, he said. 

Work said when those conducting the review asked the lab what percentage of spores had been found alive when they ran verification tests to see if they were killed, the lab said 2 percent. 

However, upon checking the data, investigators found it was actually 20 percent. 

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, who led the review and also briefed reporters, said, "It was a mistake. I would not call it a lie at this point." 

He said the review did not find "any recklessness on the part of anybody at Dugway" or "any negligence or any gross negligence."

Still, the Army has launched a fact-finding investigation into who is responsible for the low standards at Dugway, and officials said that there had been problems in the past at the lab. A few years earlier, it was found that the processes at Dugway did not successfully kill a live sample. 

Army spokesman Col. David P. Doherty said in a statement, "[Army Secretary John McHugh] was deeply troubled by the report's findings, and immediately ordered that a corrective plan be developed, and a 15-6 investigation be conducted to determine whether there were any failures of leadership."  

"We will work with the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy to ensure that all our labs are safe, secure and in full accordance with all regulations, policies and proven scientific methods and procedures," he said. 

The Pentagon first discovered the problem in May after another lab had discovered that a sample it received from Dugway was live.  

Since 2003, four Pentagon laboratories irradiated or killed a total of 149 batches of live anthrax spores, and declared them safe for subsequent testing. 

Every one of those batches have been accounted for and either tested or destroyed, except for 53 batches that are no longer in the Pentagon's possession and were not available for testing. Recipients of the other batches were told to destroy them. 

Of the 96 batches in the Pentagon's possession, 17 had tested positive for live anthrax, and had all originated from Dugway Proving Ground. That figure accounted for more than half of Dugway's total inventory of 33 batches, which Work called "a major problem." 

Work said the samples had been shipped out in liquid form, and had extremely low concentration of anthrax spores. 

"A healthy person would have to purposely ingest, drink the sample, or inject it, and would have to do it several times for them to become infected," he said. 

The Pentagon, which ordered a halt on all shipping of anthrax from the four Pentagon laboratories that work with the samples, said that moratorium would continue.  

Work said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would continue to track down all the samples not in the Pentagon's possession, and brief the Pentagon "very soon." 

"Now this review taught us lessons we needed to learn. We were quite frankly surprised by them. They identified institutional and procedural failures we urgently need to address. We are shocked by these failures," Work said. 

"I want to stress to you that DOD takes full responsibility for these failures. We are implementing changes and recommending the establishment of procedures, processes, and protocols that will prevent such a biohazard safety failure from ever happening again," he said.