Biological Warfare News

Pentagon Labs Questioned on Handling of Deadly Germs

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating four Defense Department labs for mishandling deadly germs used in bioterrorism research, a spokesman said Friday.

The mistakes involve anthrax, plague and viruses that cause encephalitis, which are studied by the military to defend against their potential use as biological weapons. There is no evidence that anyone has been harmed by the errors or that there is any risk to the public, officials say. But bioterrorism experts say that there should be zero tolerance because the organisms are so dangerous, and that even seemingly small mistakes, like flaws in record-keeping, could have calamitous results.

Because of the C.D.C. findings, the secretary of the Army on Sept. 2 ordered the four labs to suspend their work with certain dangerous microbes classified as “select agents” because of the risks that they pose. The suspension was first reported by USA Today. The laboratories are the Dugway Proving Ground Life Sciences Test Facility in Utah, and three sites in Maryland: the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Naval Medical Research Center. They, along with five other labs, have been ordered to conduct safety reviews of all their procedures.

Concerns about the military labs surfaced in May, when it was discovered that the Dugway lab had, during the past decade, mistakenly shipped live anthrax, the bacteria were supposed to have been killed, to numerous labs in the United States and seven other countries.

The Dugway incident led the C.D.C. to conduct spot checks at other Defense Department labs, said a spokesman for the agency, Jason McDonald. Six inspectors were sent to the Edgewood facility from Aug. 17 through 19.

“Inspectors found some labeling issues,” Mr. McDonald said. He said questions were raised about whether certain specimens labeled killed and harmless might actually contain live organisms. For instance, the inspectors found two vials of plague bacteria outside the safe containment area designated for live organisms, and when they asked for documentation to determine whether the bacteria were live or inactivated, “two documents provided showed discrepant results for the same product,” Mr. McDonald said in an email.

Questions were also raised about whether active encephalitis viruses might have been shipped as if they were harmless, but a preliminary investigation suggests that was not the case, Mr. McDonald said. But he added that there were “preliminary indications” that other specimens of dangerous organisms may have been shipped without proper authorization.

“C.D.C. is investigating those transfers to ensure that there was no risk to those that handled this material or to the public,” Mr. McDonald said.

The C.D.C. was not granting interviews with the scientists who conducted the inspections because the investigation is still going on, Mr. McDonald said.

In an email, he said the agencies’ responses “demonstrate how seriously both organizations take incidents involving select agents. We accept there will always be some risk in the laboratory work C.D.C. and others do to protect Americans, but our goal is to eliminate unnecessary risk and reduce unavoidable risk. That is why labs in the select agent program have numerous, redundant systems to ensure there are many layers of protection between the work done in labs and the general public.”

When asked for comment, the Pentagon provided only its statement from Sept. 2.

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