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US military base mistakenly ships live anthrax to labs

A military facility in the US state of Utah has accidentally shipped live anthrax samples to several US labs. Health officials say there are no known infections and that public safety is not at risk.

A US military facility mistakenly shipped live

anthrax bacteria

to laboratories in nine US states as well as an American military base in South Korea, defense officials said Wednesday.

The Pentagon said there were no suspected infections or risks to the public, but four US civilians are undergoing preventative measures that include taking a combination of the anthrax vaccine and antibiotics.

Jason McDonald of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the four civilians were "doing procedures that sent the agent into the air," but face "minimal" risk. The CDC has begun an investigation into the incident.

Airborne anthrax is potentially deadly if inhaled. In 2001, five people died after inhaling anthrax sent through the US mail to government and media targets.

The military base from which the anthrax was shipped, Dugway Proving Grounds, regularly transfers "dead" anthrax samples, which are inactivated through radiation. But exact information about how the live Anthrax was inadvertently shipped remained unclear.

"All samples involved in the investigation will be securely transferred to CDC" or affiliated labs "for further testing," said CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harden. The sample sent to South Korea was subsequently destroyed, according to the Pentagon.

The anthrax was originally shipped from the Utah facility as part of an effort to develop a field test to identify biological threats.

"Out of an abundance of caution, (the Defense Department) has stopped the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation," said Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren.

Latest lapse

Biosafety experts were shocked at the lack of oversight.

"These events shouldn't happen," said Stephen Morse, a former program manager for biodefense at the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Last year, US government laboratories came under fire after reports of careless management of deadly bacteria.

Investigators discovered anthrax stored in unlocked refrigerators and an unrestricted corridor and that dangerous materials had been transported in resealable plastic bags.

US lawmakers have demanded stricter oversight of government labs.

bw/rc (AFP, Reuters)

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