A week after the 9/11 terrorists attacks that destroyed the Twin Towers in New York, letters laced with anthrax began to pop up across the US. By the end of November, 2001, 17 people had been hospitalized for anthrax exposure and five people were dead from inhalation. A subsequent FBI investigation pinned the entire ordeal on one Bruce Ivins who killed himself in 2008.
Fast forward to yesterday and 26 people are now being treated for exposure after live anthrax was sent via FedEx. The culprit: the US military.
CNN has more:
Four lab workers in the United States and up to 22 overseas have been put in post-exposure treatment, a defense official said, following the revelation the U.S. military inadvertently shipped live anthrax samples in the past several days.
CNN learned on Wednesday a Maryland-based lab received the live samples, which prompted an across the board urgent review to see whether any other live anthrax has been shipped.
Officials are concerned because samples left over at the lab in Dugway, Utah, where the samples originated, were tested and determined to contain live agent.
The shipments, thought to be dead, were shipped under less rigorous conditions than the live agent protocol.
NBC News reported that the anthrax was sent via FedEx.
The army apparently thought they were shipping samples rendered inactive by gamma radiation last year, but that clearly was not the case because when a Maryland lab received their sample last Friday they were able to grow live Bacillus anthracis. The lab reported their concerns to the CDC. By Saturday afternoon, labs in Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, Tennessee, New York, California and Virginia were notified that the US military had accidentally mailed them the deadly bacteria. A sample sent to a US base in South Korea was destroyed on Wednesday.
For their part, the military has got nothing (Via WSJ):
The military and CDC are investigating whether the full batch was irradiated improperly or if some other error occurred, allowing live samples to be sent. A military official said it is simply not known what went wrong.
Here's a bit more color from Reuters, who notes that the samples will now be sent to the CDC who will hopefully not follow their usual Anthrax shipping protocol:
"Out of an abundance of caution, (the Defense Department) has stopped the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation," said Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren.
The CDC said it has launched an investigation of the mishap.
All samples involved in the investigation will be securely transferred to the CDC or affiliated labs for further testing, spokeswoman Kathy Harden said, adding that CDC has sent officials to the labs "to conduct on-site investigations."
The mishap comes 11 months after the CDC, one of the government's top civilian labs, similarly mishandled anthrax.
Researchers at a lab designed to handle extremely dangerous pathogens sent what they believed were killed samples of anthrax to another CDC lab, one with fewer safeguards and therefore not authorized to work with live anthrax.
Scores of CDC employees could have been exposed to the live anthrax, but none became ill.
As a refresher, this is what CDC Director Thomas Frieden has to say about the agency's anthrax safety record (Via WaPo from last July):
The head of the federal government’s public health laboratories in Atlanta told Congress Wednesday that researchers mishandled live anthrax and other deadly pathogens in the past because agency officials failed to see a broad pattern of safety lapses.
In the past, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focused too narrowly on responding to specific incidents at individual laboratories without addressing more systemic issues.
“We missed a critical pattern,” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden. “And the pattern is an insufficient culture of safety.”
Frieden testified before an oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that focused on laboratory safety after more than 80 CDC employees may have been exposed to live anthrax last month, when samples were transferred from one lab to other CDC labs.
As a result of the CDC’s internal investigation, the agency disclosed last week that there had been four other incidents in the past decade when deadly pathogens were mishandled. None had been previously disclosed by the CDC.
And then of course there was the incident which occurred in December when the agency admitted to mishandling an Ebola sample, potentially exposing a dozen people to the deadliest virus known to mankind.
It sounds like the new anthrax samples are now in good hands.
The punchline to this latest example of government ineptitude when it comes to handling bioweapons is that the Maryland lab who reported the mishap was participating in an "effort to develop a field-based test to identify biological threats." Thanks to the US military, they got a crash course.