15:54 GMT12 July 2020
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    The Pentagon's most secure labs may have mislabeled, improperly stored and transported specimens of infectious plague bacteria and other deadly viruses, a new investigation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revealed.

    Recent CDC inspections at the US Army's Edgewood lab in Maryland, which was long considered the Pentagon's most secure, added to shocking revelations about another Army lab in Utah, which mistakenly shipped live anthrax specimens — mislabeled as dead — to research facilities in all 50 states and several foreign countries. Though there were no reported illnesses stemming from the Utah lab case, several researchers who worked with the specimens were put on antibiotics as a precaution.

    This time around, concerns have ignited over the mishandling of the bacteria that causes plague, a disease that killed millions of people in Europe in the 14th century and still has a fatality rate of about 93% if human infections go untreated.

    "The Army investigation is under way," Defense Department spokesperson Peter Cook told reporters on Thursday. "We expect this program to be fixed."

    When live biological samples are labeled as killed or weakened, they pose a risk to scientists who rely on specimen tags to know whether a sample is still infectious and can be worked with safely without special protective equipment.

    According a senior Defense Department official, the suspect samples of plague were tested and shows to not contain the fully virulent form of plague bacteria, but a weakened version. After extensive analysis, no danger to the public or specimen researchers has been found so far, with final test results expected at the end of the month.

    Cook said the Army was "working collaboratively with the CDC" on the investigation into the potential mishandling of the bacteria.

    Regardless of the results of those tests, the sloppy safety practices at US military labs that the scandal has exposed have raised concerns about the handling of other lethal agents studied there, like specimens of Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus and Eastern equine encephalitis virus, which are also classified as bioterror pathogens and can cause serious illnesses, including deadly inflammation of the brain.

    In response to the revelations of potential protocol lapses, an emergency ban was imposed on research of all bioterror pathogens at nine Pentagon labs. All labs will undergo safety reviews to ensure they are properly handling select agent pathogens.

    The new CDC investigation is focused on specimens created and stored by US military labs for further distribution by the Defense Department's Critical Reagents Program, a scientific materials supply group offering a catalog of supposedly "inactivated" specimens and other pathogen specimens for use in developing and testing biodefense products like detection equipment and diagnostic tests.

    According to the CDC, most of the specimen transfers went to other Defense Department facilities, and the agency is still investigating whether the shipped materials contained live pathogens and whether they pose any risk to public health.


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    plague, virus, anthrax, US Army, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), United States
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