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Pentagon officials announced Thursday the number of kits containing live anthrax has grown again to 52 labs in 18 states, Washington, D.C., and three foreign countries, Australia, South Korea and Canada — more than twice as high than first reported.
Two labs, one in Maryland the other in Canada, received live anthrax spores.
Pentagon officials stressed that they don't believe the public is in danger from the live spores. Some 31 military and civilian lab workers who came into contact with the vials are being treated with antibiotics for potential exposure.
The number of original larger "lots" or "batches" of anthrax that will be inspected has risen to 400 at four separate military facilities, leading Defense officials to conclude more live anthrax samples are sure to be discovered and the number of sites impacted could increase.The oldest irradiated batch in which live anthrax was discovered dates back to 2005 which essentially means it took the Pentagon ten years to discover the potential threat.
"We expect this may rise because the scope of the investigation is going on," Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said on Wednesday.
Anthrax samples are irradiated to kill any live spores before they are shipped to other labs for research into how to protect against a biological terrorism attack. But the system to kill live spores failed and four large batches that were "rested" in the past two weeks contained actually contained live anthrax.
US officials tell NBC News the Centers for Disease Control is expected to order the suspension of all anthrax shipments from any qualified agency until it can be determined why the irradiation of anthrax failed to kill the anthrax spores.
Anthrax, both live and inactive, are routinely shipped in small vials via Federal Express, packed in several sealed containers and dry ice to keep the samples frozen — so far without incident.
The Pentagon is among the locations that received a shipment of anthrax from a batch that was later found to contain live spores, defense officials told NBC News.
The samples were sent to the Pentagon's police force, which planned to use them in testing and calibrating detection equipment for incoming mail. They were drawn from a batch of anthrax that had been irradiated at the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, a method that is supposed to kill any live spores.
But that process apparently didn't completely work; when Dugway retested that batch recently, it was found to contain live spores.
There's no indication that the Pentagon samples contained live spores, and no one in the Pentagon has shown signs of infection, the defense officials said.
"It's a complete mystery," according to one official, who said the CDC wants to suspend all shipments from government and private research labs "as a precaution."
The news followed revelations that three government research labs in Canada received anthrax samples from a 2005 batch of anthrax that recently tested positive for some live spores.
Dugway and the CDC are examining anthrax samples that were sent to government and private research labs in 12 states, South Korea, Australia and Canada.
Defense officials pointed out that even though several original batches of anthrax at Dugway have tested positive for live spores, only one private research lab in Maryland has received a sample that has so far tested positive.
The officials added that no one has come down with an anthrax infection.
The revelation did not sit well with several members of congress. House Energy and Commerce committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Michigan, committee ranking member Frank Pallone, Jr., D-New Jersey, Oversight and Investigations subcommittee chairman Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania, and subcommittee ranking member Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, recently sent letters to the CDC and Pentagon expressing their concern.
"Just when you thought the situation could not get any worse, we are now learning that live anthrax was shipped to nearly twice as many states and three times as many countries as originally reported. We remain deeply concerned by the issue of inactivation protocols and procedures for studying dangerous pathogens in our federal research laboratories, an issue that this committee has been overseeing since similar incidents occurred at the CDC more than a year ago," the lawmakers said in a statement. "The committee will be briefed by the CDC and Department of Defense in the coming days and we look forward to receiving regular updates as the comprehensive review of these troubling and unacceptable incidents moves forward. These continued lapses must be fixed before someone is seriously harmed."