Columns

Army: No Event, Person, Group 'Directly Responsible' for Anthrax Shipments Mistake

An Army investigation into mistaken shipments of live anthrax around the globe found no one specifically to blame for the mishandling of the deadly bacteria, but revealed even more samples in storage that weren’t inactive as believed.

Officials on the “Investigation into the Inadvertent Shipment of Live Anthrax Spores to a Number of Laboratory and Abroad From Dugway Proving Ground” briefed reporters on their findings today at the Pentagon.

In early 2015, the lab in Utah sent live anthrax — the samples were supposed to be inactive — to 194 labs in 50 states and nine foreign countries.

While investigating the anthrax shipments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention then discovered mishandled plague bacteria at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Army Office of Business Transformation and lead for the Biological Select Agents and Toxins Task Force, said their recommendations “will establish a standing DOD biological safety review panel, consisting of prominent scientists from both within and outside of the Department of Defense, and that review panel will review and validate procedures for working with biological select agents and toxins.”

“We have transferred control of the biological laboratory at Dugway Proving Ground, from the Army Test and Evaluation Command to the Research, Development and Engineering Command, and eliminated their mission of producing biological agents for export across our customers,” Spoehr said. “So that production mission will no longer be conducted at Dugway Proving Ground, it will be done at other laboratories within the DOD.”

“We’ve put in place a new DOD biological inspection program in favor of a central program. Previous to this, we had at least eight separate inspection teams. Now, we will have one DOD inspection team, which will partner with the Center for Disease Control to provide a much more — less variability in our standards and increased integration.”

Major Gen. Paul Ostrowski, deputy for Acquisition and Systems Management in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army and lead investigator into the incident, said “no single event, no single individual, no groups of individuals are directly responsible for the inadvertent shipment of a small amount of active anthrax.”

“We did find, through evidence, that a combination of events, including gaps in science, institutional issues and personal accountability when taken together each contributed to this event,” Ostrowski added.

“Let me be perfectly clear. There was no evidence to suggest in any way, shape or form that lab technicians or the American public were at any time at risk. I wanted to be specifically clear on that point. At no time were lab technicians nor the American public at risk based on these inadvertent shipments.”

Ostrowski said they have to “investigate the irradiation process, which is the preferred method of inactivating anthrax” and “institutionally, we have to take a look at how we inspect our facilities.”

On individual accountability, he acknowledged they “saw failures to take action” and “saw best practices by lab technicians not being used.”

It’s now up to the Army’s chain of command “to invoke any kind of retraining, counseling or any other type of accountability for those particular individuals.”

Spoehr said officials “have a very high degree of confidence that we have identified all the recipients” of the anthrax.

“I don’t know if that there is ever the potential to achieve certainty, because what we have found in some cases, people that received shipments chose to separate a little bit of that and send it to a third-party, if you will,” he said.

At Dugway, Ostrowski said investigators found 33 separate lots of anthrax since 2004 “that we had thought had been inactivated.”

“We pulled all of those 33 lots. And we tested them. When we tested them, 17 of those lots were able to grow, which shows, again, that the type of procedures that we were using were flawed in some way,” Ostrowski said. “…The problem is is if you radiate it too much, you kill all the antigens and all the proteins. And so that spore is worthless. At the same time, if you don’t irradiate it enough, you have live spores.”