The Pentagon has upped its estimate of the amount of deadly live anthrax mistakenly shipped from from its secure laboratory in Utah to 51 labs in 17 states, the District of Columbia and three foreign countries.
Further Defense Department officials acknowledged that the numbers will likely rise as investigations now underway reveal new information about shipments.
The Pentagon continued to say that there is no public health risk from the errant shipments. But it increased to 31 the number of civilian and active-duty personnel at several labs who are taking the antibiotic Cipro as a precautionary measure after being exposed to the deadly pathogen.
None of the 31 have shown signs of having contracted the sometimes fatal illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The anthrax shipped from the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah was in liquid form, which is considered less dangerous than anthrax in powdered form, which can be fatal on initial exposure when inhaled.
The Pentagon previously had named 12 states where labs have received the anthrax shipments. On Wednesday, it added Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, Arizona and the District of Columbia.
In their first formal briefing on the problem, the military and health officials expressed bafflement at the apparent failure of a multipronged system used for the last decade to ensure the safety of anthrax shipments.
Under that system, anthrax at four Pentagon labs is first irradiated to kill live spores, and then the irradiated samples are tested to make sure no live anthrax remains.
“We want to find out what is the root cause for the incomplete inactivation of anthrax samples in (Department of Defense) laboratories,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work. “Why didn’t we kill the spores when we put them through what we considered to be a protocol that would?”
Also perplexing was why a followup test intended to detect whether live anthrax remain after irradiation did not work as designed.
“Those sterility tests did not detect the presence of live anthrax,” Work said. “We need to know why.”
Work has ordered a halt to all anthrax shipments from the Dugway Proving Ground and three other Pentagon facilities, which send it to hundreds of commercial, academic and military labs around the world for research and testing aimed at improving protections against toxic biological agents.
“We’re acting with urgency, I would say, on this matter,” Work said.
The Pentagon launched a new website dedicated to updating the public on the progress of its investigation and any new information uncovered.
Work ruled out, for now, malfeasance in the errant anthrax shipments.
“There’s absolutely no indication that this happened as a result of somebody deliberately doing this – at this point,” he said.
The scandal started May 22 when a lab in Maryland notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it had been able to grow anthrax using some of the supposedly dead spores received from the Dugway Proving Ground.
Since then, the Pentagon and the CDC have identified four batches from two larger samples of live anthrax at Dugway, and it is testing hundreds of lots of anthrax there and at the three other military biological facilities authorized to possess large quantities.
“We’re in the midst of some of these tests, and that’s why the number (of labs that received live anthrax) may grow,” Work said.
Work also confirmed that some anthrax from Dugway arrived at a building on the Pentagon grounds that houses the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the massive complex’s police force.
Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said a team of military and civilian experts is testing more than 400 batches of anthrax at the four biological centers. He said four had been found to have live anthrax, with more expected.
In one possible problem, the CDC is looking at why the Pentagon’s biological team tests only 5 percent of an irradiated anthrax liquid sample when some scientific literature calls for the testing of 10 percent to 15 percent, Kendall said.
Nine Defense Department labs are authorized to use anthrax in research, along with more than 300 commercial and academic labs in the United States, said Navy Cmdr. Franca Jones, director of medical programs for the Pentagon’s chemical and biological defense section, which has developed successful vaccines against Ebola, anthrax and other deadly diseases.
Jones demonstrated how anthrax samples are packaged and shipped, starting with sealed vials placed in plastic storage bags that are wrapped in sponges. The bags are then placed in polycarbonate containers that are put into special cardboard shipping boxes with dry ice.
Jones said she and her colleagues “actually issue a death certificate signed by a number of individuals” for each sample of purportedly deactivated anthrax sent to a lab.
For shipments of live samples, a label reading “INFECTIOUS MATERIAL” is affixed to the outer box.
“No live anthrax should have been in those boxes at all,” Jones said of the errant shipments.
She added: “We still have a lot to learn about how this happened.”
The CDC has completed tests on nine samples shipped to it from labs that had received anthrax from Dugway, and all nine samples have shown the presence of live spores, Jones said. The agency has 10 more samples on which to complete testing.
Asked how many anthrax samples have been shipped to labs over the last 10 years, Jones said: “We’re culturing at least 400 lots, and each lot is many supplies.”
As the testing moves forward, she said, “We will find more labs (that received live anthrax.) We will find more lots.”