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US Military May Have Also Mishandled Plague and Encephalitis Bacteria

U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center
U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center

First it was live anthrax, and now the Pentagon is investigating whether military laboratories also may have mishandled, mislabeled, improperly stored and possibly shipped plague and equine encephalitis bacteria.

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said Thursday that the Defense Department and the Army have expanded the investigation of the shipment of live anthrax spores to all 50 states and several countries to include the mishandling of plague and encephalitis samples by an Army lab in Maryland.

Cook said the expanded investigation was seeking to determine "whether or not things were labeled properly" and "whether these substances were shipped to other labs" from the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland.

The discrepancies, first reported by USA Today, on the handling of plague and encephalitis samples were found at the Maryland lab in a spot inspection on Aug. 17 by the Centers for Disease Control, Cook said.

"We don't know whether or not this substance did pose a threat. This remains a concern," he said, but there was "nothing to suggest a risk to workers or the general public" from the initial CDC reporting.

Officials told USA Today that the plague samples from the Army lab being tested as part of the investigation were of a less virulent form of the potentially deadly bacteria.

In response to the anthrax scandal, in which live anthrax was shipped from the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, Army Secretary John McHugh last week ordered a moratorium on research at nine military labs where potentially lethal pathogens are tested and studied.

Cook said McHugh's moratorium now applies to research on plague and equine encephalitis. "There's a freeze in place. Nothing's being moved. That work is basically, effectively on hold," Cook said.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com

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