Pentagon Briefs Congress on Live Anthrax Shipments

Two airmen set up security at the contamination site during a Bio-Detection System exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Katrina Heikkinen)
Two airmen set up security at the contamination site during a Bio-Detection System exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Katrina Heikkinen)

Pentagon officials are trying to reassure lawmakers after the U.S. Army shipped live anthrax to unsuspecting labs across the globe.

Pentagon experts involved in the mitigation efforts briefed members of the House Armed Services Committee's Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee June 10 regarding ongoing progress to address the problem.

Rep Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who chairs the subcommittee, and Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., issued a joint statement following a closed session with military experts on the situation.

"The proliferation and potential use of biological agents remains a grave and enduring threat to the nation and to our deployed military forces. To deal with those threats, it is critical that the Department (DoD) maintains a robust program to develop biological countermeasures, including vaccines, therapeutics, protective gear and environmental monitoring," they said.

While details from the closed-door session with lawmakers were not publically available, senior Pentagon officials offered a few details on what the Pentagon is doing to address the problem. These include working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; ordering all DoD labs to test all previously inactivated spore-forming anthrax; and advising laboratories that have received inactive anthrax from DoD to stop working with those samples.

The number of impacted laboratories and locations in the U.S. and around the world has been climbing steadily since the incident was first discovered at the end of last month.

Pentagon officials recently acknowledged that 68 laboratories in 19 states Washington, D.C., as well as four foreign countries are now known to have received the live anthrax samples.

Sens. Wilson and Langevin said they remain concerned about safety procedures at DoD laboratories.

"It is essential that the Department maintains a robust safety program to ensure these dangerous agents are handled and transported with the strictest of precautions. Clearly, the current safeguards did not work in these cases," the lawmakers' statement said. The live anthrax, which was mistakenly sent to commercial companies, academic institutions and various federal laboratories, also reached locations in the United Kingdom, Korea, Australia and Canada, according to a U.S. military statement.

Pentagon officials said that, in addition to Washington, D.C., the states identified as having received live samples are California, Utah, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Washington, Illinois, Florida, Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

In addition, 31 people are now being treated with what's called Post-Exposure Prophylaxis, a preventative medical treatment given to people after exposure to a pathogen. Eight non-DoD U.S. citizens and 23 DoD employees are among those now being treated, Pentagon officials said.

Speaking to reporters last week, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said that for the past 10 years, the department has regularly shipped inactivated or killed biological material to federal and private partner labs for development of biological countermeasures.

Work added that there is no risk to the general public from the mistakenly sent live anthrax samples, adding that the concentration of the samples was too low to infect the average healthy individual.

"There are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection among any workers in any of the labs that have received these samples over the last 10 years. And we continue to work with the CDC to ensure that all possible safeguards are taken to prevent exposure at the labs in question, and that any worker that might have had the risk of exposure, even to these low concentrated samples, they are closely monitored," he said.

DoD also said it has launched a comprehensive review of the situation to include a root cause analysis and thorough assessment of DoD laboratory biohazard safety procedures and protocols.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon acquisition chief, is leading the review, which is slated to finish by the end of this month.

"The final report depends upon the completion of the CDC's investigation. It will focus on the root cause for the incomplete inactivation of anthrax samples at DoD laboratories, why post-inactivation sterility testing did not detect the presence of live anthrax, existing DoD laboratory biohazard safety protocols and procedures, DoD laboratory adherence to established procedures and protocols, and identification, and what steps should be taken to fix those problems," Kendall said.

Wilson and Langevin said the committee "will remain engaged as the response moves forward, will work to make sure the investigation is transparent and that steps are taken to make sure this does not happen again."

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at kris.osborn@military.com

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