The U.S. Defense Department inadvertently shipped samples that may carry live anthrax to 51 laboratories in 17 states, the District of Columbia and three foreign countries, officials said, far more than they first estimated.
All nine of the first samples tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were positive for the deadly biological agent, and testing continues to determine whether all the shipments contained live spores, Commander Franca Jones, the Pentagon’s medical director for chemical and biological defense, said on Wednesday.
“We have to get to the bottom of what caused this,” Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said at a news conference, pledging to complete an investigation within 30 days to determine why anthrax spores weren’t killed before being shipped, as should have occurred.
The risk to the public is “extremely low” because the concentration of anthrax in the samples was too small to affect an average healthy person, Work said.
The defense officials acknowledged that the incident raises troubling questions about how the military handles anthrax as it conducts research to develop biological warfare countermeasures.
The Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah shipped the samples as part of research that’s been conducted for the past 10 years to detect and counteract anthrax, officials said.
The first sign of trouble came on May 22, when a private laboratory in Maryland notified authorities that the sample it had received from Dugway that was supposed to be inert was still alive.
The Pentagon initially reported last week that the potentially dangerous samples from Dugway were delivered to eight companies in nine states. Those numbers have increased on an almost daily basis.
“I do believe the numbers may go up” further as testing continues, Work said.
There are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax-related illness, and no indication that live spores were sent deliberately, he said. As a precautionary measure, 31 lab workers exposed to the samples, mostly at Osan Air Base in South Korea, are taking prophylactic medicines.
Australia and Canada were the other countries that received the tainted shipments.
While the military ships both live and dead anthrax samples at times, the batch that caused concern was supposed to have been dead before being shipped, Jones said.
The military has pledged “total transparency” in its investigation, though officials so far have declined to identify all the labs that received live anthrax.