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Flawed procedures led to a decade of live anthrax shipments, Defense Department finds

This Jan. 27, 2010, file photo, shows the main gate at Dugway Proving Ground military base, about 85 miles southwest Salt Lake City, Utah.
This Jan. 27, 2010, file photo, shows the main gate at Dugway Proving Ground military base, about 85 miles southwest Salt Lake City, Utah. (Jim Urquhart / Associated Press)

Flawed procedures at an Army laboratory in Utah failed to kill potentially lethal anthrax spores that researchers then shipped around the world, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

The practices were in place at Dugway Proving Ground for at least 12 years, officials said, until a subcontractor in Maryland discovered in May that it had received a live batch of the germ warfare agent and alerted the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Officials said researchers at the three other Defense Department labs that handle anthrax, all of which are in Maryland, had better procedures and worked safely with the bacterium.

A Pentagon review found that the problems at Dugway should have been caught earlier

"This was a massive institutional failure with a potentially dangerous biotoxin," said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work. But officials said no one tried to spread live anthrax intentionally, and they declined to say whether anyone should be held accountable for the shipments.

The researchers at Dugway were supposed to have sent killed anthrax to their counterparts in government and private labs. But 86 labs in 20 states, the District of Columbia and seven foreign countries received live spores over the past decade, officials said.

Thirty-one people received medical attention after potentially being exposed. But no one was found to have been infected, and Work said the liquid form of anthrax that was shipped was unlikely to make someone sick.

"There were no known risks to the broader public," he said.

The Defense Department handles anthrax at four labs at three installations: Dugway Proving Ground, Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Detrick in Frederick. The labs work with private contractors to improve methods of detecting a biological attack. The killed anthrax is used to test detection equipment.

Anthrax can be sent through the mail, making it an attractive weapon for terrorists. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, letters laced with the spores were sent to members of Congress and the news media, killing five people. The FBI said it eventually traced the attacks to a scientist at Fort Detrick.

The most recent accident came to light in late May. A shipment sent from Dugway a private lab in Maryland arrived without a certificate declaring that the spores had been killed, officials said. The private researchers performed a test and discovered that the spores were alive.

Officials have not named the private lab.

The discovery set off a worldwide hunt for spores that had been sent from Dugway and the other three labs going back years.

Ultimately, only Dugway had sent out live spores, officials said.

The basic process for killing anthrax involves blasting the spores with radiation and then using a sample to see whether the bacterium can grow or is truly dead. But each lab set its own rules for how to carry out the process.

While investigators said they could determine no single cause behind the failure at Dugway, they found aspects of Dugway's approach that might have been at fault: The lab used smaller samples to check whether the spores were dead and declared them killed sooner after the irradiation.

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Investigators also discovered that there is no national standard for how to kill the spores. The Defense Department has ordered a halt to anthrax shipments until a more secure method can be developed.

"This review taught us lessons we needed to learn," Work said. "We are shocked by these failures."

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