At least 26 people are taking antibiotics after they handled or were near live anthrax bacteria accidentally sent to labs in nine states and an Air Force base in South Korea, officials said Thursday.
US military officials say no one at the 19 separate military and civilian labs that received anthrax samples from Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah shows any signs of infection, and they say it’s unlikely anyone would have been infected by the bacteria.
Antibiotics have been given to four lab workers at the civilian facility who discovered the anthrax bacteria, which were supposed to have been killed, were in fact alive. And military and civilian contractors at Osan Air Base in South Korea are also being treated with antibiotics out of an overabundance of caution. “It's what the Army does," said one senior defense official who asked not to be named.
Anthrax commonly infects animals and it can be found in their hides and in soil where an animal has died. It can infect people on the skin, if they eat infected material or if they breathe in the spores that the bacteria produce. All types of infections can be treated with antibiotics, but if people start to develop symptoms from inhaled spores it can be too late to treat them because antibiotics do not affect the toxin produced by the bacteria.
There’s a vaccine to prevent anthrax infection and people can also take antibiotics to prevent infection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the labs were developing tests for anthrax, which is considered to be a very likely bioterrorist weapon. The bacteria were supposed to have been inactivated, probably by radiation, and one lab discovered the microbes were not, in fact, dead. That means people may have handled them in less-than-safe conditions.
Live anthrax should only be handled under biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) conditions. And they should have been shipped in special packaging with warning labels.
In all 14 private labs, 4 military labs and Stanford University received anthrax samples for testing and research, DoD said. None of the other 18 facilities known to have been shipped anthrax have discovered live bacteria in their samples at this point, DoD officials said.
DoD said the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated the incident and found no evidence of any foul play or intentional contamination of the anthrax shipment.