The Proper Care and Handling of Anthrax

Handle with (more) care.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. military's Great Anthrax Giveaway of 2015 gets more worrisome by the day. At last count, Army researchers in Utah had sent out live anthrax samples to more than 50 labs in 17 states, Australia, Canada and South Korea.

This mishap is all the more disturbing because it comes less than a year after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention accidentally shipped live anthrax to three labs not equipped to handle it. So it's worth repeating now the calls for reform that were made then: The government has to change the way it deals with deadly toxins and germ agents.

The latest mistake, involving sealed vials holding about a milliliter of anthrax that had not been irradiated, was discovered by accident when scientists at a private lab in Maryland found a sample that had live spores. This led the Army to test 400 more batches, and the first four turned up positive.

Thankfully, nobody has been infected. Anthrax causes an acute bacterial disease can be fatal as much as 75 percent of the time, depending on how one is exposed to it and whether symptoms have set in. It isn't contagious, but spores can be transmitted through ingestion, breathing and skin contact. Its use as a weapon exploded into the public consciousness shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when letters containing powdered anthrax were mailed to members of Congress and the news media, killing five and infecting 17 others.

Although the U.S. stopped developing germ agents as weapons 35 years ago, military scientists continue to work on defenses against attack -- research that has picked up since 2001 at facilities such as the one at Dugway, Utah, where the errant shipments originated. The CDC has its own high-containment labs for germ agents and regulates the public and private laboratories that use them.

Twice in the last six years the Government Accountability Office has suggested guidelines for oversight not just of programs that use anthrax but also those that work with botulism, bird flu virus and a deadly strain of Brucella bacteria. Because its proposals have been largely ignored, they deserve restating:

An independent body should monitor all government labs dealing with pathogens, whether they belong to scientific agencies or the military. Private labs must be independently monitored to ensure deadly germs are handled safely, and a strict inventory kept. And while federal officials insist that shipping vials packed in dry ice in polycarbonate containers via FedEx is perfectly safe, this may be one instance in which playing it even safer is justified, if only to ease the concerns of a wary public. These changes are best coordinated by the White House, given the record of the military and federal agencies on this score.

The president might also want to look long and hard at whether the government is doing more research on this front than is called for. Deadly germs are a serious threat. But for the most part they can be contained before they set off an epidemic. And the public anxiety caused by these mishaps is a cost all its own.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.