A U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) official testified on Tuesday at a House committee hearing regarding concerns that an Army facility in Utah shipped live anthrax and suggested that enhanced safety protocols were needed in order to prevent a recurrence.
“The department (DoD) is committed to putting in place the systems to ensure that this does not occur again,” DoD Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense D. Christian Hassell said in written testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“DoD and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) continue to work closely to understand the issues relating to the inactivation of anthrax and necessary changes to the viability testing protocol in order to respond to the findings of the investigation and review,” Hassell said.
In late May, DoD acknowledged that the Dugway Proving Ground, an Army facility in Utah, had inadvertently shipped live anthrax to a commercial laboratory in Maryland as well as to other contract labs. These shipments revealed that Dugway’s process for inactivating anthrax with radiation was not fully effective.
The purpose of the hearing was to address whether Dugway shipments of live anthrax and the overall performance record of labs handling select agents make a sufficient case that the Federal Select Agent Program (FSAP) needs to be substantially strengthened and reformed, and if so, what changes and reforms to the FSAP will lead to substantial improvements in performance.
Hassell said that on May 29, the deputy secretary of defense work directed the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics to oversee a review that included the root cause of the incomplete inactivation of anthrax, DoD lab biosafety procedures, laboratory adherence to established procedures and identifying the steps necessary to fix those problems.
Hassell said as a result of the review committee’s findings, it recommends DoD laboratories that work with hazardous select agents and other pathogens enhance quality control programs, establish anthrax spore inactivation and viability testing protocols and improve program management to ensure adequate laboratory space, equipment and time to conduct relevant research for select agents and other pathogens.
Hassell added in the interim, the DoD moratorium on producing, shipping and working with any inactivated anthrax, other than for purposes related to developing the science basis for irradiation and viability testing, will remain in effect.
“Our top priority is the safety of all involved,” Hassell said. “We remain fully committed to complete transparency of information.”
Hassell told the committee that by May 25, “all known laboratories that received inactivated anthrax samples had been notified and instructed to stop working with the samples and to follow CDC instructions.” That same day, Hassell said, the four DoD labs that produced inactivated anthrax in support of defense research were directed to stop producing, shipping and working with any inactivated anthrax.
“There are no known or suspected cases of anthrax infection among workers at any of the labs that produced or received inactivated anthrax, and there is no known risk to the general public and very little risk to laboratory workers, due to the low concentration of live anthrax in the samples,” he said.
Also providing testimony to the committee was CDC Deputy Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response Dan Sosin, who was the agency's incident manager for the response and oversaw all aspects of CDC’s involvement.
Sosin testified that on May 22, after being advised by a lab that live anthrax was detected in a sample from Dugway that was supposed to have been inactivated, CDC initiated an outreach to 183 domestic laboratories to track 575 shipments of presumed inactivated anthrax material coming from Dugway.
“In the last two months, CDC has reached out to each laboratory to identify potential exposure to this material within the past year,” Sosin said. “If a potential exposure was encountered, CDC doctors and scientists assessed workers and the laboratory environment for any possible aerosol exposure.”
Sosin said eight individuals, working in three different civilian laboratories, were identified as potentially exposed. “As of submitting this testimony,” Sosin said, “none have experienced any complications.” Sosin added that since 2004, labs working with inactivated samples from Dugway found no laboratory researchers diagnosed with anthrax infection.
“However, CDC will maintain the moratorium on use and transfers of these materials to lower biosafety level laboratories until more well defined standards for inactivation and sterility testing have been identified,” Sosin said.