Pentagon officials admitted on Wednesday that live anthrax spores were accidentally shipped from Utah to government and commercial laboratories in nine states across the U.S. and one overseas destination.
A Pentagon spokesperson, Col. Steve Warren, said the samples, which contained live Bacillus anthracis, were mistakenly shipped from Dugway Proving Ground, an Army facility in western Utah.
“There is no known risk to the general public, and there are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection in potentially exposed lab workers,” said Warren.
The live anthrax samples were received by government and commercial labs in California, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. A sample was also sent to a U.S. military laboratory at Osan air base in South Korea, but there were no signs of workers being exposed to the sample, which were later destroyed.
According to Warren, there is collaboration in the investigation between the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who got involved after a private lab that received anthrax samples from the military facility requested a consultation with them.
Acting “out of an abundance of caution,” the Defense Department has since suspended all “shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation.”
Live anthrax, which can cause grave illness after contact with the spores, is required to be handled in a biosafety level 3(BSL-3) lab – one that has the capability of protecting workers from bacteria and the spores it produces.
There are three ways that anthrax can infect people – in the lungs, in the digestive system, or on the skin. However, once inhaled, anthrax is at its deadliest because spores that have been inhaled can hang around in the lungs for months before they kick into action. And when the symptoms begin to surface it is usually too late for antibiotics to help.
“The ongoing investigation includes determining if the labs also received other live samples, epidemiologic consultation, worker safety review, laboratory analysis, and handling of laboratory waste,” CDC spokesman Jason McDonald told U.S.A Today.
McDonald also stated that the samples that were involved in the mix-up were securely transported to the CDC or regional partner labs where more testing are expected to take place. An onsite investigation is also being carried out at Dugway by CDC investigators.
“CDC is working in conjunction with state and federal partners to conduct an investigation with all the labs that received samples from the DOD. The ongoing investigation includes determining if the labs also received other live samples, epidemiologic consultation, worker safety review, laboratory analysis, and handling of laboratory waste,” the CDC said in a statement to NBC News.
This potentially deadly mishap falls within a year of a prior mistaken shipment of live anthrax. Last June, around 86 people may have been exposed to live anthrax, which lab workers thought were inactive.
And in 2004, a lab in Maryland inadvertently had a batch of live anthrax delivered to a children’s hospital in California.
[ Image via Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program/Getty Images]