A U.S. military facility in Utah mistakenly sent live anthrax bacteria to private laboratories in nine U.S. states, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, adding, however, that there were no known suspected infections or risk to the general public.
The anthrax had been meant to be sent to laboratories in an inactive state as part of U.S. military efforts to develop a field-based test to identify biological threats in the environment, the Pentagon said.
“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.
Although the Pentagon said there were no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection, it was not immediately clear whether any laboratory workers might be undergoing preventative treatment.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was not immediately reachable for comment.
The mishap comes 11 months after one of the federal government’s top civilian labs, the CDC in Atlanta, had a similar biosafety accident.
Researchers at a CDC lab that is 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 were potentially exposed to the live anthrax, including when it was carried through hallways. Dozens were treated with anthrax vaccine and antibiotics to prevent infection, and no one became ill.
That incident and a similar one last spring, in which CDC scientists sent a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab what they thought was a benign form of bird flu but which turned out to be a highly dangerous strain, led U.S. lawmakers to fault a “dangerous pattern” of safety lapses at government laboratories handling deadly pathogens.
In the case of the U.S. military’s mistake, the samples were sent from the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah to laboratories in Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, Tennessee, New York, California and Virginia, a U.S. defense official said.
The Maryland laboratory alerted the CDC that it had a live sample on Friday night and by midday on Saturday, all the laboratories that might also have live samples were notified, the official said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Sharon Begley and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Sandra Maler and Eric Beech)