Pentagon leaders used unusually harsh language in criticizing the failure of the Defense Department to detect and control inadvertent shipments of live anthrax to at least 86 labs across the United States and in seven other countries over the course of a dozen years.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, who headed a review whose findings were released Thursday, expressed shock at the weak and inconsistent testing protocols the probe uncovered in the unit charged with developing ways to counter the use of biological weapons by enemy forces.
“By any measure, this was a massive institutional failure with a potentially dangerous biotoxin,” Work said.
While the review found no evidence of purposeful malfeasance, Work directed Army Secretary John McHugh to determine whether any military scientists should be punished for the loose handling and shipping of the deadly pathogen.
Anthrax has been an ongoing focus of health concern in the United States since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when spores sent through the U.S. mail killed five people and sickened 17 others. The source of the letters was never proven, but the FBI accused a deceased worker at the government’s biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md., of sending them.
Since then the country has been subjected to occasional scares when suspicious white powder has arrived in letters.
The review said the errant shipments in April and May “did not pose a risk to the general public.” But the shipments represented “a serious breach of regulations,” which require that anthrax and other deadly biological agents be completely deactivated before being moved from one of the four Defense research centers to outside labs.
Work said it was fortunate that the anthrax was shipped as part of a diluted liquid substance rather than in the much more potent powdered form that would be used in biological weapons.
“This helps explain why over the 12-year period, there has not been a single instance of infection,” he said.
All of the shipments of live anthrax originated at the military Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, the review found. Work said the number of labs that received the anthrax would likely grow because some of the 86 already identified shipped the samples they received to other facilities.
Work extended a moratorium first imposed in May on the anthrax testing program at Dugway, three other military research centers and all participating civilian labs around the world.
The review found that the Dugway Proving Ground had used weak protocols that failed to kill all the anthrax in its batches and failed to detect that some samples were still active before shipments.
The review also concluded that there are no uniform standards for handling Bacillus anthracis, the scientific name for anthrax, among the four military research centers authorized to test the pathogen.
“We have a lot of work cut out for ourselves,” Work said. “The American public expects more from the Department of Defense.”
When Dugway scientists were asked about the problem before the review, they said that 2 to 3 percent of their anthrax samples had live spores. When the Pentagon team went through the center’s raw testing data, it found the true rate was 20 percent. Live samples were found in 17 of the 33 anthrax batches in Dugway’s inventory.
“Obviously, when over half of the anthrax batches that were presumed to be inactivated instead proved to contain live spores, we have a problem,” Work said.
Asked whether the Dugway employees had deliberately misled the Army officials to whom they report, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition and technology, responded: “It was a mistake. I wouldn’t call it a lie at this point.”
Among the review’s recommendations were suggestions to standardize anthrax inactivation protocols across all Defense Department labs, institute more rigorous quality-control procedures, and quantify the number of anthrax spores more precisely before irradiation.
The Pentagon had previously said the errant shipments went to labs in Washington, D.C., and 17 states, including Florida, North Carolina, Washington and Illinois.
When a Maryland lab discovered live anthrax in one of the samples from Dugway, it notified the Centers for Disease Control, and the Pentagon placed a moratorium on all shipments of inactivated anthrax.
The anthrax shipments are part of an international program the United States runs with allied governments to develop methods of countering potential biological attacks by unfriendly countries.
The committee that conducted the review was comprised of 21 scientists and investigators from the Defense Department, the FBI, the Homeland Security Department, the Agriculture Department, universities and outside consulting groups.