Back in May, the US military was forced to admit that it had done something really stupid and what’s great about the story is that it requires very little in the way of explanation and/or added color to explain why what happened can be fairly classified as an example of sheer governmental incompetence. Put differently: this story speaks for itself. Here’s a recap:
According to CNN, “four lab workers in the United States and up to 22 overseas have been put in post-exposure treatment, a defense official said, following the revelation the U.S. military inadvertently shipped live anthrax samples in the past several days.” The army apparently thought they were shipping samples rendered inactive by gamma radiation last year, but that clearly was not the case because when a Maryland lab received their sample last Friday they were able to grow live Bacillus anthracis. The lab reported their concerns to the CDC. By Saturday afternoon, labs in Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, Tennessee, New York, California and Virginia were notified that the US military had accidentally mailed them the deadly bacteria. A sample sent to a US base in South Korea was destroyed on Wednesday.
That came just a few months after the CDC admitted to mishandling an Ebola sample, potentially exposing a dozen people to the deadliest virus known to mankind.
Needless to say, the story grabbed headlines across the country as Americans struggled to understand how it’s possible that the US army could possible have managed to unknowingly jeopardize dozens of lives by FedEx-ing live anthrax to nine states and one foreign country.
Well don’t look now, but the DoD is out warning that the army might have also mishandled samples of the black plague which isn’t known to be dangerous unless you count the time it wiped out 60% of Europe’s entire population. Here’s more from CNN:
The U.S. Department of Defense is looking into possible mishandling of bubonic plague and equine encephalitis samples at its laboratories, a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday.
The new inquiry is part of an investigation into the mishandling of anthrax at Department of Defense labs, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
The department hasn’t determined whether samples containing plague bacteria and specimens of the deadly virus were shipped from its labs, Cook said.
The latest investigation started after CDC inspectors found a sample of the plague in a freezer outside of a containment area on August 17 at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland, Cook said.
Investigators are working to determine whether the sample posed an “infectious threat,” Cook said. Army tests found it was not infectious.
“That’s the scientific work that’s being done at this particular time, determining exactly what happened there, and whether or not … there was mislabeling,” he said.
Yersinia pestis, the same type of bacterium that was responsible for the plague pandemic that wiped out 60% of the European population between the 14th and 17th centuries, maintains a foothold in the United States and around the globe in rodents and the fleas that live on them.
Today, the infections are treatable with antibiotics if they’re caught early enough. Since 1970, there have been anywhere from a few to a few dozen cases of plague every year in the United States, most of them occurring in Western states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yes, only “a few to a few dozen cases of plague” per year, but that bubonic dearth is nothing the US military can’t fix with a few “mislabed” samples and a FedEx account.
For their part, Fred Upton (chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee) and Frank Pallone (ranking Democrat) are incredulous: “Anthrax being mishandled is disconcerting enough, but now the mishandling also includes [the] plague.” Here’s a bit more from USA Today:
The Pentagon’s most secure laboratories may have mislabeled, improperly stored and shipped samples of potentially infectious plague bacteria, which can cause several deadly forms of disease, USA TODAY has learned.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flagged the practices after inspections last month at an Army lab in Maryland, one of the Pentagon’s most secure labs. That helped prompt an emergency ban on research on all bioterror pathogens at nine laboratories run by the Pentagon, which was already reeling from revelations that another Army lab in Utah had mishandled anthrax samples for 10 years.
Army Secretary John McHugh ordered the research moratorium on Sept. 2, Pentagon officials say, out of an abundance of caution.
The suspect specimens, which may be live despite being labeled as killed or weakened, indicate a wider range of dangerous bioterror pathogens being handled using sloppy safety practices at laboratories operated by the U.S. military. They also further illustrate the risks faced by other scientists who rely on pathogen “death certificates” to know whether or not a provided sample is still infectious and can be worked with safely without special protective equipment. An ongoing USA TODAY Media Network investigation has revealed numerous mishaps at government, university and private labs that operate in the secretive world of biodefense research prompting growing concern in Congress and among biosafety experts.
And while all of the above may look, on the surface, like cause for concern, you shouldn’t worry because ignorance is bliss and the US government is doing its best to make sure that you remain in the dark about anything that might actually be important:
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook: “We’re trying to be as forthcoming as we can be right now without alarming the public.”
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