Defense Department labs may have improperly stored samples of bacteria that could cause plague in addition to anthrax and other toxins for which the facilities were already under scrutiny, a Pentagon spokesman said.
A new inquiry involving the shipment and storage of samples of the Yersinia pestis bacteria, which can cause plague, and two mosquito-borne viruses that can cause death and brain damage, Eastern equine encephalitis and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, are part of a larger investigation begun earlier this year, involving live anthrax samples which were shipped from Pentagon labs to 86 research facilities around the world in the past several years.
The investigation centers on the discovery of anthrax contamination at a Utah lab, and incomplete record-keeping at other labs, and follows an Army order to review safety procedures involving the handling, storage and transport of all toxic agents.
Inspectors for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found plague bacteria samples stored in a freezer outside the area of containment at an Army research facility in Maryland, one of the military’s most secure laboratories, in August.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Thursday there is no danger to health workers or to the general population.
“We’re trying to be as forthcoming as we can be right now without alarming the public. One of the things they’re doing right now is trying to assess whether any of these substances, first of all, pose any sort of threat; second of all, whether these substances were shipped to any other laboratories.”
The investigation, though, is a sign the Pentagon is concerned about lethal agents other than the previously acknowledged possible mishandling of anthrax.
The Yersinia pestis bacteria, transmitted by fleas living on rodents, was responsible for the notorious plague known as the Black Death, which swept Europe in the 14th century. Today it is treatable with antibiotics if caught soon enough, but the bacteria can also cause pneumonic plague, which affects the lungs, and septicemic plague, affecting the skin. The two diseases have high death rates and can be spread through coughing.