Pentagon probe into poorly handled plague, anthrax lab samples is finished

by Tom Vanden Brook
USA Today

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The emergency probe into the military’s botched handling of potentially deadly samples of anthrax, plague and encephalitis was completed Wednesday, although the moratorium on work at the Pentagon’s most secure laboratories remains in place, according to officials.

Army Secretary John McHugh ordered the stand-down at nine military labs after investigators for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found potential problems handling plague at a facility in Maryland. McHugh’s action on Sept. 2, taken out of what he called a “sense of extreme caution,” followed news this summer that a military lab in Utah had mishandled anthrax for as long as a decade.

“Once the review results are compiled, the U.S. Army will develop a plan to address any deficiencies,” Lt. Col. Jesse Stalder, an Army spokesman, said in a statement. “This process will take some time and, once complete, more information will be made available."

The Army also confirmed that the moratorium on research remains in place on potential bioterror bacteria, viruses and toxins at nine biodefense laboratories.

McHugh, in his first public comments about the issue on Tuesday, said the problems that led to the moratorium are coming into focus.

“We’ve got some partial answers,” McHugh said at an appearance at the American Enterprise Institute. “All of them correctable. But I think we want to be very, very sure that we understand as completely as we can the full picture before we come out and lay out a way forward.”

Halting the research was necessary, he said, to confirm that procedures for rendering deadly substances harmless are adequate. Officials are also ensuring that laboratory personnel have the right skills to handle agents like plague and anthrax.

“These are things that are very, very complex and challenging,” McHugh said. “I don’t pretend to be an expert on the science behind it. But I’m going to make darn sure that so far as my responsibility goes we’re taking every step possible to make sure the public is protected and that we develop a way forward that allows us to conduct these tests, which are absolutely essential for the security of this nation and its people in a way that’s as safe as humanly possible.”

The military and CDC are also investigating procedures at the laboratories.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, called the lapses in labs “concerning.”

“I intend to take a careful look at the results of that audit and will continue to work with my Congressional colleagues and the Administration to make sure the necessary policies and procedures are in place to prevent these incidents from reoccurring and to protect public safety and health," Carper said in a statement.

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