Relax about the Anthrax

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work held a late press brief on Thursday to announce the findings of a Department of Defense-sponsored investigative committee. Its job was to review the department’s laboratory processes that resulted in the inadvertent shipment of live Bacillus anthracis spores to 86 laboratories in eight nations, including the United States. Bacillus anthracis spores can cause the disease anthrax, which has a high mortality rate in exposed, untreated people. The highlights of the report focus on a review of laboratory processes within the four U.S. military labs that produced anthrax spores. As it turns out, half of the tested batches from Dugway Proving Ground had live spores in them, and investigators do not yet fully understand how the process failed.

The report did note that the gamma irradiation process — meant to kill live spores before they are shipped — was not at fault. The real problem was the post-irradiation viability testing, which was supposed to provide final verification that the spores were dead before they were shipped. The testing failed for some, but not all shipments. The report also notes that researchers do not fully understand how Bacillus anthracis can recover from radiation damage and continue to develop live cells. While the source of all of the live spores was from the Dugway lab, its procedures were not significantly different than the other three military laboratories. While the protocols did work at three of the four military labs, more quality assurance and quality control processes clearly should have been in place at Dugway.

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