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The United States military is looking into why deadly anthrax bacteria were shipped from one of its facilities to civilian labs in nine states and a military base in South Korea. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has the latest on the case.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The anthrax came from a lab at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. They were supposed to be dead samples, but late last week, a civilian lab in Maryland that was sent some of the anthrax found it was still alive.
PAUL KEIM: Anthrax is one of the most difficult microorganisms to kill.
BRUMFIEL: Paul Keim studies anthrax at Northern Arizona University. The bacteria hide inside tough spores that can survive for years and still infect people. The Army facilities zapped the anthrax with radiation. Obviously, Keim says, something went wrong. Maybe they didn't do it long enough to kill everything.
KEIM: One of the things that can happen is they set it up and they do it and then they find out later that it only killed 99.99 percent, which is enough if you're only doing it to 100 spores, but if you're doing it to 10 billion spores, you're going to have some escapes.
BRUMFIEL: If just a few spores were alive in each sample sent out then Keim says they probably aren't dangerous. It takes a lot of anthrax bacteria to make people sick. Nevertheless, he wonders why the Army lab failed to notice the samples were still partially alive. It's routine to check before shipping them to other labs.
KEIM: This is high school microbiology. You take these things and you put them on petri dishes and look to see if anything grows.
BRUMFIEL: The Pentagon needs to conduct a thorough investigation, says Tom Inglesby of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
TOM INGLESBY: It's really important to understand whether the safety culture is strong in the institution. Is the training right for the institution? Are people following the protocols that were intended for this kind of work?
BRUMFIEL: Inglesby helped to investigate a similar lapse last year at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where dozens of workers may have been exposed to live anthrax. The direct cause was a failure to completely kill the bacteria, but the investigation found a flawed safety culture was also to blame. So far, no one has become sick from this latest incident, but 22 individuals in South Korea are getting the powerful antibiotic CIPRO just to be safe. And here in the U.S., the CDC says another four lab workers are being treated as a precaution. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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