Live samples of deadly anthrax were mistakenly sent to laboratories in nine US states and a military base in South Korea, the Pentagon has admitted.
The bacteria – described as a “serious infectious disease” by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – were supposed to have been rendered harmless before they were sent.
Four civilian members of staff were advised to take preventative drugs, a US official told Reuters. There were no reported cases of infection.
Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the live samples were sent out from a US military-run lab in Utah.
“There is no known risk to the general public, and there are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection in potentially exposed lab workers,” he stressed.
“Out of an abundance of caution, (the Defence Department) has stopped the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation.”
The mishap comes 11 months after one of the Federal government's top civilian labs, the CDC in Atlanta, had a similar biosafety accident.
Researchers at a CDC lab that is designed to handle extremely dangerous pathogens sent what they believed were killed samples of anthrax to another CDC lab, one with fewer safeguards and therefore not authorized to work with live anthrax.
Scores of CDC employees were potentially exposed to the live anthrax, including when it was carried through hallways. Dozens were treated with anthrax vaccine and antibiotics to prevent infection, and no one became ill.
On its website, the CDC warns anthrax could be used by terrorists to launch a mass attack.
“A biological attack, or bioterrorism, is the intentional release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs that can sicken or kill people, livestock, or crops,” it says. “Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, is one of the most likely agents to be used in a biological attack.”
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