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Pentagon Admits To Sending Anthrax To The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Defense admitted under questioning from Congress this week that it accidentally sent live anthrax spores to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

The previous week, the Pentagon owned up that some 192 labs worldwide were affected, including all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and seven foreign countries that were given the live anthrax spores by mistake.

Lawmakers this week criticized the U.S. military for a years-long pattern of complacency with biological threats as the Defense Department admitted to shipping live anthrax to the nearly 200 labs worldwide.

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) took aim at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground, which mistakenly distributed live anthrax, for using a “potentially deadly process” for more than a decade without anyone noticing the problems.

“What we have here is a pattern of recurring issues of complacency and a lax culture of safety,” Murphy said. “What’s it going to take to change things this time?”

Murphy also pointed to past incidents with government labs not handling sensitive biothreats properly, including a mistaken shipment of avian flu, vials of smallpox being found in a building of the National Institutes of Health and, last year, a sample of Ebola being transferred to a lower-level lab not equipped to deal with the highly contagious, deadly disease.

“Despite the growing number of red flags, these incidents keep happening,” he said.

The Pentagon announced last week that 86 labs received live anthrax from Dugway Proving Grounds after the military lab failed to kill spores before shipping. A private lab in Maryland discovered in May that it’s sample that was supposed to be inactive was actually live, sparking an investigation that found more than half of all samples at Dugway contained live spores.

Those 86 primary labs forwarded pieces of their samples to 106 secondary labs, bringing the total number of labs that received live anthrax spores to 192 in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and seven foreign countries: Japan, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Italy and Germany.

“The department is committed to putting in place the systems so that ensure that this does not occur again,” D. Christian Hassell, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense, said at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) questioned the need for such a high number of labs to be authorized to work with anthrax, asking if fewer labs could still produce the research needed with a lower risk.

“I feel really lucky that we haven’t had anyone infected, but it could happen and I think we’re going on borrowed time here,” DeGette said.

More than 30 people completed a precautionary prophylaxis antibiotic treatment on Monday as a result of the live shipments with no adverse health effects, said Dan Sosin, deputy director at the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Defense Department labs kill anthrax spores with radiation and then culture the spores to ensure they are actually dead. In the case of Dugway, both the radiation and viability testing failed to catch the live spores.

The military sends inactive spores to military and private labs to facilitate research to calibrate equipment and design new technology and keep troops and other Americans safe from a biological attack.

The Defense Department released a report last week on the anthrax shipments that found an “institutional problem” at Dugway and no standardized way of killing and then testing the inactivated samples among the four Defense Department labs. The report recommended that the department creates a common standard among the labs, which are all under different chains of command.

The Army is also launching an internal investigation that could find an individual responsible for the accidental shipments, officials said.

Anthrax spores can and have been used as biological weapons since World War I. Its first modern incidence occurred when Scandinavian rebels, supplied by the German General Staff, used anthrax against the Imperial Russian Army in Finland in 1916.

Anthrax was first tested as a biological warfare agent by Unit 731 if the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria, China during the 1930s; some of the testing involved intentional infection of prisoners of war, thousands of whom died.

Anthrax in nature is a rare but serious bacterial illness that typically causes pneumonia in humans who have eaten livestock that carries the disease. Treatment involves antibiotics and antitoxin.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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