The U.S. military intended to decontaminate some samples of anthrax by irradiation in March 2014. However, as Sky News has discovered, the process was not entirely effective. Samples were sent out to various locales over the course of the year. However, during late May a private research facility alerted the military that one sample contained viable (living) bacterial spores. Four technicians had handled the material and were potentially exposed. The material had been transferred via a truck with only minimal safety measures in place.
This led to an urgent review of all other laboratories that had received samples and an urgent review of the military research establishment that had provided the samples. The BBC reports live anthrax samples were dispatched to a total of 24 facilities: in 11 U.S. states (Texas, Maryland, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, Tennessee, New York, California and Virginia), plus South Korea and Australia. All workers who may have come into contact with the material are to receive preventative medical treatment.
Anthrax is an acute disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Most forms of the disease are fatal. The disease can occur through breathing in spores or by consuming infected material.
According to PharmPro, the anthrax samples were prepared at a base called Dugway, located in the Utah desert. The base has been operational, focused on militarily related medical matters, since 1942.
This is another embarrassing issue for U.S. government laboratories. In June 2014, the former head of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention biosecurity laboratory was forced to resign following a safety review of U.S. government labs. Here several pathogens had been mishandled.
Despite the concerns with the CDC last year, the agency is currently charged with investigating what went wrong at Dugway. Daniel Sosin, deputy director of CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response told USA Today that “we already know that more labs and more lots of inactivation failures with anthrax spores are being identified. We have concern that the inactivation procedures, when followed properly, are inadequate to kill all spores, and the U.S. government is developing an approach to securing such possible samples from misuse.”