The Pentagon has admitted that the U.S. Military mistakenly sent live samples of deadly anthrax to laboratories across nine states and a military base in South Korea. The bacteria – described as a “serious infectious disease” by the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – were supposed to have been rendered harmless before they were sent.
Twenty-two military personnel at the Osan Air Base in South Korea are receiving preventive treatment, as a precaution after being possibly exposed to the sample. Whilst in the US, four civilians are receiving treatment – although they face a “minimal risk”.
It seems the saga has been going on for over a year. A laboratory in Utah sent out what they believed to be inert irradiated Anthorax in March last year, earlier this month one of the laboratories tested it to find it was not inert. The authorities were alerted, and tracked the route of the batches, and took the necessary precautions. The batch in South Korea has been destroyed on site, whilst the batches in the U.S. labs will be returned to safe laboratories, presumably to be destroyed.
What’s most concerning is the Anthrax was initially delivered via commercial couriers…
Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, explained that the live samples were sent out from a U.S. military-run lab in Utah:
There is no known risk to the general public, and there are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection in potentially exposed lab workers.
Out of an abundance of caution, (the Defence Department) has stopped the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation.
The accident 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 equipped 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.
So what is Anthrax?
Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. The bacteria live in soil and usually infect wild and domestic animals, such as goats, cattle and sheep.
Anthrax outbreaks are fairly common worldwide and mostly affect agricultural workers. Humans become sick with the disease by handling animal products such as wool, hide or bone from animals infected with the anthrax bacterium.
However, Anthrax can be created easily in a lab, and is incredibly durable: Spores of anthrax bacteria can lie dormant for years before entering a living host, where they reactivate and multiply. These characteristics make anthrax an extremely dangerous bio-terrorism weapon.
Anthrax has been used in bio-terrorism and warfare since World War I, when Scandinavia deployed anthrax against the Imperial Russian Army. It was also used by the British army during World War II to weaken German livestock.
More recently, anthrax has been used in bio-terrorism attacks in both Japan and the United States.