Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program/Department of Defense

Pentagon says it shipped live anthrax spores by mistake

Live spores, not dead samples, possibly sent to labs for research; suspected live sample found at air base in S. Korea

The Pentagon said Wednesday it inadvertently shipped live anthrax spores to as many as nine laboratories across the United States, and is investigating how this happened. 

The announcement came as a U.S. air base in South Korea announced that 22 people may have been exposed to a sample of what was suspected to be live anthrax during an excercise designed to use an inert training sample.

In both cases, the government said it believes there is no risk to the public, and none of the people exposed in South Korea have shown symptoms.

The nine labs were supposed to receive dead or inactive anthrax samples for research use.

Spokesman Col. Steve Warren said the Pentagon is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to retrieve the samples.

He said the government has confirmed one shipment contained live spores, and suspects that eight others did, too. The government believes there is no risk to the public, he added.

The live spores were shipped from Dugway Proving Ground — a Defense Department facility in Utah — to government and commercial labs in Texas, Maryland, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, Tennessee, New York, California and Virginia.

The anthrax in South Korea was found at the Osan Air Base, where emergency response personnel from the 51st Fighter Wing destroyed the sample after it was discovered the bacteria might not be an inert training sample as expected. 

Hazardous material teams immediately cordoned off the facility, decontaminated it under Centers for Disease Control protocol, and destroyed the agent, according to a statement on the base website.

None of the people exposed, who were examined and received antibiotics, and in some cases, vaccinations, have shown sign of exposure to anthrax, said the statement. 

Anthrax infections can occur through skin contact, but "if you inhale it and you get it in the lungs, that's a lot more dangerous," Paul Roepe, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University Medical Center, told The Associated Press in 2014. The ability of antibiotics to prevent infection depends on how quickly they are started, he said.

Anthrax triggered widespread pubic fear in 2001 when five people died and 17 others were sickened by spores contained in letters sent through the mail. The FBI blamed the attacks on a lone government scientist, Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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