By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
Washington (CNN) – In what is emerging as a widening military investigation into the accidental shipment of live anthrax, the Army discovered it may have shipped the live pathogen to Australia back around 2008 or 2009, the Pentagon said Friday.
Following the discovery that 22 shipments of live anthrax had been sent over the past year to private labs and a U.S. military facility in South Korea, a lab in Dugway, Utah, where the samples originated, went back and checked further into its inventory, according to a Defense Department official.
It discovered a still-live batch of anthrax from 2008. Records showed some had been shipped to Australia, but the official could not immediately verify if the shipment had been made in 2008 or 2009, or whether the spores in the shipment to Australia were found to be live. The official said the Australians were notified.
No other details were immediately available Friday. The Pentagon is now reviewing the anthrax inventory to see if there are other live samples. It is also reviewing the irradiation protocol it uses to determine if it’s faulty. But even after irradiation to kill the spores, there are two subsequent verification tests undertaken to make certain the material is dead, so it is not clear where the failure occurred and if there are other live anthrax samples the Pentagon is not aware of.
Friday’s development comes after the revelation that four lab workers in the United States and up to 22 overseas were put in post-exposure treatment after the U.S. military inadvertently shipped the live samples — some via FedEx — to 24 laboratories in 11 states and the two countries.
The shipments occurred between March 2014 and March of this year. The Pentagon said on Wednesday that a Maryland-based lab had alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it had received live samples, prompting an across-the-board urgent review to see whether any other live anthrax has been shipped.
The shipments, because they were thought to be dead, were shipped under less rigorous conditions than the live agent protocol. Officials are concerned because samples left over at the lab in Dugway, Utah, were tested and determined to contain live agent.
Science experts told the Defense Department there was no risk to the public from shipping in those containers.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said one sample was also sent to the Joint United States Forces Korea Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition Program at Osan Air Base in South Korea.
“The sample was destroyed in accordance with appropriate protocols,” Warren said.
The 22 people who were potentially exposed were receiving treatment, according to a statement from the base earlier this week. They included five active duty Air Force members, 10 active duty Army members, three civilian officials and four contractors, a defense official said.
“All personnel were provided appropriate medical precautionary measures to include examinations, antibiotics and in some instances, vaccinations,” the statement from the base said. “None of the personnel have shown any signs of possible exposure.”
The facility was decontaminated afterward and the anthrax was destroyed.
Samples are supposed to be rendered dead before they are shipped under a routine research program. All military, government and commercial labs that may have received samples are now reviewing their inventory of anthrax.
The CDC is investigating in conjunction with the Defense Department and said they do not suspect any risk to the public.
“CDC is working in conjunction with state and federal partners to conduct an investigation with all the labs that received samples from the DOD,” Jason McDonald, a CDC spokesman said. “The ongoing investigation includes determining if the labs also received other live samples, epidemiologic consultation, worker safety review, laboratory analysis and handling of laboratory waste.”
A military spokesman confirmed there is no known public risk nor any illnesses reported.
“The DOD lab was working as part of a DOD effort to develop a field-based test to identify biological threats in the environment,” said Warren, the department spokesman. “Out of an abundance of caution, DOD has stopped the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation.”