Pentagon Freezes Work at 9 Biodefense Labs Working with Bioterror Germs

Pentagon Freezes Work at 9 Biodefense Labs Working with Bioterror Germs
Science & Medicine

Defense officials say that the Pentagon will announce plans to place a moratorium on all operations at 9 biodefense labs with viruses, toxins, and bacteria such as anthrax. The move comes after officials found that policies and procedures at the labs are subpar. [1]

It’s unclear how long the labs will halt their work, the officials said. The freeze means “nobody is shipping anything,” one official said. Investigators looking into the anthrax lapses have determined that there is much more work to be done. It is not known how long the moratoriums will last.

The freeze was ordered by Army Sec. John McHugh, and extends to the Army, Air Force and Navy. Officials said the decision was made out of an abundance of caution. The facilities won’t reopen until the Army determines operations can resume safely. McHugh will still be able to permit work for security reasons during the moratorium.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook confirmed that live anthrax had been shipped to all 50 states. Cook did not mention the lab moratorium, but said that the Pentagon’s report on the botched handling of the pathogen would be released in October.

Widespread problems were found at the labs, including improper handling of pathogens, administrative shortfalls and lack of a uniform interpretation of policies by the facilities. Pentagon officials deemed it necessary to shut down shipping at the labs after investigators found the problems to be more widespread than originally thought.

In its July report, the Defense Department said it found an “institutional problem” at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, and that the proving ground lacked a standardized method of killing and testing the inactivated samples among the four department labs. All of the chains are under a different chain of command. [2]

In May, the nation first learned of the anthrax reactivation scandal.  A private biotech company in Maryland discovered a sample of what was thought to be dead anthrax that was actually still capable of growing.

Related: CDC Reassigns Lab Director Behind Anthrax Scare

The pathogen sample came from Dugway and was part of a project to develop a diagnostic test for potential bioterror pathogens. It was reported in July that nearly 200 labs in all 50 states

CDC investigators concluded that Dugway had mistakenly been shipping hundreds of live anthrax specimens that were labeled as dead for more than a decade. The pathogen wound up 194 labs in every state in the U.S., as well as nine foreign countries.

The Defense Department uses radiation to kill anthrax spores, and then cultures them to ensure they are dead. In Dugway’s case, the radiation did not work and viability testing failed to catch the live spores.

Fortunately, no one was killed as a result of the error, but several people who worked with the specimens completed a precautionary prophylaxis treatment in July as a precaution.

In recent years, more than 100 public and private labs have faced sanctions due to serious violations of safety regulations in their studies of bioterror pathogens. The government, however, does not release their names.


[1] USA Today

[2] The Washington Times

Features image credit: Kristin Murphy/The Deseret News via AP