WASHINGTON, June 4, 2015 – Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work today promised transparency in the Defense Department’s comprehensive review of its laboratory procedures, processes, and protocols associated with inactivating spore-forming anthrax.
Speaking with Pentagon reporters, Work emphasized that public safety is the department’s top concern, and he provided background on the DoD laboratories and their processes.
“Public safety is paramount,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 thing on our mind. Two, we have to get to the bottom of what caused this issue, and we are doing this.”
Along with determining the cause of the inadvertent shipment of low concentrations of live anthrax, Work pledged transparency and accountability in the department’s review.
Background and Notification
Work said for the last 10 years DoD has regularly shipped dead biological material to other federal and private partner labs for development of biological countermeasures. If the department wants a field detector kit for anthrax to safeguard troops on the battlefield, he explained, it works with labs and partners to provide the dead spores for its development.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the Defense Department on May 22 that a private lab that had been working with DoD detected the growth of live anthrax from a sample that DoD supposedly had inactivated, Work said.
“We felt that it was an inactivated and safe … collection of spores,” he added, “but it turned out not to be the case. That immediately started the wheels turning within the department so that we could try to characterize the problem.”
Numbers May Rise
Work said as the review unfolds, the numbers of laboratories affected by the inadvertent shipments could rise. At this point, he said, 51 laboratories in 17 states, one in the District of Columbia, and three in foreign countries are believed to have received suspect samples.
“We expect this number may rise because the scope of the investigation is going on,” the deputy secretary said, promising to update the numbers as the review unfolds.
Up-to-date information on the DoD review — which is separate from the ongoing CDC investigation — will be available at http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2015/0615_lab-stats/.
No Risk to General Public
“I’d like to emphasize … that there are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection among any workers in any of the labs that have received these samples over the last 10 years,” Work said. “We continue to work with the CDC to ensure that all possible safeguards are taken to prevent exposure at the labs in question.”
Workers who may have had the risk of exposure to the samples are being closely monitored, Work said. “We know of no risk to the general public from these samples,” he added. “To provide context, the concentration of these samples are too low to infect the average healthy individual.”
As a precautionary measure, Work said, the department has advised any laboratory that may have received any shipment of inactivated anthrax from DoD to stop working on that lot until DoD and CDC issue further instructions.
Work said the four DoD laboratories that maintain the repository for these anthrax samples has been directed to test every previously inactivated anthrax sample to ensure that they are inactive. “That is why the numbers may rise,” he said. “We have a number of lots that we need to inspect and verify, and it takes some time to actually to do the test.”
Review Ordered For Lab Procedures
After consulting with Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who is traveling in the Asia-Pacific region, Work said, he ordered a review of all DoD laboratory procedures, processes and protocols associated with irradiating live anthrax. Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, is leading the department’s review on his behalf and will report the preliminary results within 30 days, he said.
The review, Work said, will:
— Identify the root cause for the incomplete inactivation of the anthrax samples in DoD laboratories;
— Learn why sterility tests did not detect the presence of live anthrax;
— Review all DoD laboratory biohazard safety protocols and procedures;
— Inspect every DoD laboratory to ensure they all adhere to the established procedures and protocols; and
— Identify any systemic problems and take whatever steps necessary to fix them.
“This review is separate from the ongoing CDC on-site investigation of DoD labs, which we are assisting and is expected to last several weeks,” Work reiterated.
“After the CDC investigation is complete,” he said, “the department is going to conduct its own investigation with respect to any apparent lapses in performance and to assure appropriate accountability.”
Work said everyone in DoD takes this issue very seriously, because it is a matter of public health and it affects the health of all the members of the department.
“We are acting with urgency … on this matter,” he said, adding that testing of the spores will be continuous until all have been tested.
“We are going after it as fast as we can,” he said.