Military officials said Thursday that the Pentagon was in close contact with officials at research labs in California, Texas and seven other states that received potentially live anthrax spores, but they refused to identify the labs or to disclose how many people were being treated with antibiotics to stave off the disease.
A Defense Department spokesman, Army Col. Steven Warren, said 22 personnel at Osan Air Base in South Korea were taking the antibiotic Cipro as a precaution against anthrax exposure. But he declined to talk about whether workers at labs or other facilities in the United States were also taking Cipro.
The lack of information was criticized by members of Congress, who demanded answers on how the mistaken shipments happened and who had been affected.
“This incident represents a serious breach of trust in the United States Army’s obligation to keep our citizens and service members safe,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh. “Moreover, the shipments to a South Korea air base weaken the United States’ credibility as a global leader in chemical weapons control.”
In a separate letter, a bipartisan group of members of the House of Representatives told Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that the inadvertent shipments of live anthrax “raise serious safety concerns” about the way the military handles “dangerous pathogens.”
The letter was signed by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the panel’s senior Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, as well as two committee members, Republican Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania and Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado.
In comments to reporters Thursday, Warren acknowledged that he did not “have a whole lot of details on the exact purpose” of the anthrax shipments to Osan Air Base. In an earlier statement, Warren had said the anthrax shipments were part of a pilot program to develop a field test to identify biological threats in the environment.
In addition to Osan, the Defense Department said it suspected that labs in nine states had received live anthrax because they had been recipients of the same “cluster” of shipments.
In addition to facilities in California and Texas, those labs included military, university or commercial enterprises in Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland and Wisconsin. The anthrax was shipped from a Defense Department lab in Dugway, Utah.
Warren said the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was working to determine who might have handled the anthrax shipments before they reached the nine destinations.
He declined to describe what kind of packaging was used to ship the anthrax or to confirm news reports that FedEx had transported at least some of the shipments.
Live anthrax requires strict handling protocols, and anthrax samples are supposed to be rendered inactive before being shipped for research uses. All military, government and civilian labs that might have received such samples are now reviewing their anthrax inventories.
“Out of an abundance of caution, DOD has stopped the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation,” Warren said.
“The ongoing investigation includes determining if the labs also received other live samples, epidemiological consultation, worker safety review, laboratory analysis and handling of laboratory waste,” said Jason McDonald, a spokesman for the CDC.
Anthrax burst into the American psyche one week after the 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington, when over the course of several weeks five people died and 17 survived infection after anthrax-laced letters were sent to several news organization and to the offices of two U.S. senators.
Two of the dead in 2001 were postal workers who’d come in contact with anthrax when the letters containing the spores passed through the Brentwood mail facility in Washington, D.C. Another was an employee of a Florida media company that had received one of the letters. How the other two victims were exposed has never been determined.
Over the next seven years, the FBI and other prosecutors named two men as having possible ties to those anthrax attacks, Steven Hatfill and Bruce Ivins, but the government never brought charges against either of them.
In the current case, four Defense Department employees in the United States who’d handled the samples have been placed in post-exposure treatment in addition to the 22 in South Korea, CNN reported.
Warren defended the speed with which the Pentagon made public the information that live anthrax had inadvertently been shipped. That notification came five days after a research lab in Maryland told the Pentagon that it had received live anthrax in a package that was supposed to contain only inactive spores.
“We got the information out as rapidly as we could,” he said. “It’s important to have as much accurate information as possible. Once we understood that there was no threat to the public, we understood that we had additional time to gather more information and present a more complete picture.”
Osan Air Base in South Korea said in a statement that “all personnel were provided appropriate medical precautionary measures to include examinations, antibiotics and in some instances, vaccinations. None of the personnel have shown any signs of possible exposure.”
The base added: “Hazardous material teams immediately cordoned off the facility, decontaminated it under Centers for Disease Control protocol, and destroyed the agent.”