Banality of Weasel

Exclusive: Pentagon Blames Anthrax Fiasco on…No One at All

For over a decade, the U.S. military shipped a deadly biological agent around the globe. But the Pentagon can’t find a single ‘root cause’ for this monumental goof.

07.17.15 12:30 AM ET

A Pentagon report designed to explain how a military lab sent live anthrax to 86 locations worldwide could not find a “single root cause” for the worst biosafety mishap in decades. Nor does the report finger any individual or group for the blunder, The Daily Beast has learned.

Instead, the report blames the shipments of deadly bacteria to 21 states and seven nations over the last decade on the lack of a common scientific standard for killing anthrax, also known as bacillus anthracis. It’s a claim that some experts rejected as an attempt to whitewash sloppy military practices.

A highly anticipated 38-page draft report viewed by The Daily Beast focused on a Dugway Proving Ground, the Army base that produced all the activated anthrax spores sent around the globe. The report concludes that “a single root cause for shipping viable BA [bacillus anthracis] could not be identified” but considers the “primary systematic issue” a lack of “specific validated standards to guide the development of protocols, processes and quality assurance measures.”

The report finds that Dugway failed to use enough radiation to kill anthrax and it did not correctly conduct subsequent tests to confirm the anthrax was dead. In footnotes throughout, the report dwells on how difficult it is to kill anthrax. On that, outside scientists and the Pentagon agree. But the scientists also note that commonly accepted procedures, when used correctly, would not allow a lab to unknowingly send activated anthrax spores, as Dugway did for a decade.

The report notes that no other lab within the U.S. government handled as much anthrax as Dugway did. It concludes that the Department of Defense should develop standards across its four labs that handle such dangerous pathogens. It also recommends that the U.S. Army assess whether anyone from its Dugway facility should be punished or removed for the lab’s failings.

But experts said those recommendations are not enough.

Richard Ebright, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, rejected the Pentagon’s claims that the shipment of live anthrax spores was solely the result of a lack of scientific consensus. Indeed, he called Dugway’s practices “criminally negligent.”

To Ebright, Dugway’s use of such practices over a decade, despite numerous signs that the methods were insufficient, indicates an unsafe lab.

Ebright believes the Pentagon is hiding behind a lacking scientific consensus and a federal standard to avoid making changes at a dangerous facility.

“The errors had nothing do with scientific uncertainties. This was a mismanaged industrial operation,” Ebright said. “The errors were avoidable at many different steps.”

“Dugway runs an industrial production program—not a science program,” Ebright added.  “The recipients of the spore samples were military contractors and military bases—not scientists.”

To be sure, there are no federal standards for how to kill live anthrax spores. But that is because another government agency, the Centers for Disease Control, consistently has refused to set them. And so the individual institutions, like Dugway, have crafted their own standards. 

The Pentagon report said there were “deficiencies” in the lab’s radiation dosing, which refers to the amount of radiation used to inactivate the spores.

Dugway took procedures that had been shown in the scientific literature to be barely sufficient to inactivate a million anthrax spores and applied them to production batches containing trillions (millions of millions) of anthrax spores.

So it’s no surprise that Dugway’s production batches still contained live spores after irradiation—thousands and thousands of live spores. 

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“That radiation dose Dugway used was just barely sufficient, and certainly not safe, for batches of a million spores... and was grossly insufficient, and unequivocally unsafe, for batches of a trillion spores,” Ebright said. The lack of a federal standard “does not excuse Dugway for adopting procedures that are mathematically unsound and scientifically unsupportable.”

The report states that deficiencies in irradiation procedures were compounded by deficiencies in quality control testing.

“Dugway not only failed to inactivate their production batches of spores properly. They also failed to test their production batches properly,” Ebright said. 

The report refers to “scientific uncertainties” in “sample sizes” for testing and in “incubation periods” between irradiation and testing. In other words, Dugway didn’t know exactly how much anthrax it was blasting with gamma rays—or how long the bacteria should sit before scientists examined it.

But Ebright contends that these “scientific uncertainties” cannot account for the failure of Dugway’s quality control testing to detect that spores still were viable. He notes that Dugway produced hundreds of batches of spores over a decade-long interval and consistently failed to detect live spores. “This massive, consistent failure cannot be accounted for, or explained away by, minor technical issues such as sample sizes and time periods between irradiation and testing,” Ebright said.

“It is hard to believe testing actually was done. If it was performed, it was performed in an appallingly bad way,” he added.

The report also noted deficiencies in Dugway's “aseptic” procedures for keeping unwanted microbes—microbes other than anthrax itself—out of production of anthrax spores. Ebright said sloppiness with sterile techniques at Dugway is not surprising, given the other practices at Dugway, But it does not by itself account for the shipment of live spores.

Dugway Proving Ground, about 85 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, first learned it had shipped activated anthrax spores when a private lab in Maryland notified the base on May 22. The Maryland lab then informed the Centers for Diseases Control, which is leading the investigation, on May 23. By June, Bob Work, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, called for an investigation, led by the Under Secretary of Defense and Acquisition, which produced the report.

Department of Defense officials said they plan to conduct a briefing with the full findings of the report sometime next week. Officials declined to comment, saying it will give its response at that briefing.

In 2001, a series of anthrax-laden letters were mailed to key senators and media personalities, killing five people, exposing nearly 30,000 to the lethal spores, and raising fears that terrorists could deploy anthrax to attack Americans. The FBI’s main culprit was discovered years later to be Bruce Ivins, an Army biodefense researcher.

But in a post-9/11 climate, the suspicious letter kicked off calls for widespread research into anthrax, leading the military to pour enormous sums of money into labs conducting research on the biological agent.

Even when the anthrax attacks turned out to be an internal threat—rather than an outside biological strike, as some initially feared—the policies and the increased funding for research did not change. Rather than reduce risks, the number of people with access to deadly pathogens increased as much 40-fold, experts estimated. As that number increased, so did the chance of catastrophic error.