Investigation faults U.S. Army lab's leaders over mistaken anthrax shipments

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 15, 2016 9:47 AM

By Idrees Ali and David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Officials at a U.S. Army biodefense lab in Utah had multiple warning signs of safety issues but failed to take steps that could have averted the mistaken shipment of live anthrax to other labs, according to a military investigation report released on Friday.

While no single event or individual directly caused the shipment of live anthrax, a number of people, including the brigadier general who led the lab at Dugway Proving Ground, should be held accountable, the report said.

The lab at Dugway Proving Ground, an Army facility southwest of Salt Lake City, is responsible for neutralizing anthrax spores that are sent to other laboratories for medical research and investigation.

But for more than a decade, the lab used a technique that failed to fully neutralize the spores on many occasions, resulting in live spores of the deadly bacteria being sent to 192 labs in the United States and abroad, Defense Department officials reported last year.

The report concluded that senior leadership at the lab downplayed previous incidents and showed complacency.

"The leadership at (Dugway Proving Ground) did not comprehensively investigate these mishaps, address incidents as training/educational opportunities, or take disciplinary action against personnel," the report said.

FAILED TO ACT

Officials failed to take effective action to correct the problems even after serious incidents at the labs between 2007 and 2011, including three mistaken shipments of Botulinum Neurotoxin A, according to the report.

Anthrax spores are neutralized with doses of radiation but are notoriously difficult to kill. To confirm their neutralization, samples are tested to determine if they are still able to grow.

An official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a congressional hearing last year it should have been evident the procedures at Dugway were inadequate because anthrax was often repeatedly sent back for more radiation.

The review said five leaders, including two former commanders of the lab, failed to take appropriate actions.

The report named only Brigadier General William E. King IV, who was in command at Dugway as a colonel from July 2009 to July 2011, saying he "repeatedly deflected blame and minimized the severity of incidents."

King, who was in charge of the lab, is now commanding general at the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosive Command at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

"Colonel King responded to each incident by correcting deficiencies identified by outside organizations, but he failed to conduct internal reviews to improve the operations of (Dugway Proving Ground) and prevent future incidents," the report said.

King could not immediately be reached for comment.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)