There’s Agent Orange at Andersen Air Force Base, detectable nuclear fallout from Pacific testing and Polychlorinated biphenyls in Merizo. Now, add anthrax to the list of contaminants dumped on Guam by the U.S. military.
In May 2015, a Pentagon scandal broke out when the Department of Defense discovered that the BioTesting Division at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah had inadvertently made 575 shipments of live anthrax samples to 194 laboratories and contractors worldwide from 2004 through 2015.
A report from the Government Accountability Office released on Sept. 20 indicated that Guam is among the secondary recipients of the anthrax shipments.
The pathogen, scientifically known as Bacillus anthracis, causes anthrax, a serious infectious disease. It occurs naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world and can survive in the environment for decades, according to GAO’s information analysis. Because Bacillus anthracis is both infectious and exceptionally resilient, the U.S. military found it ideally suited for biological weapons programs.
According to GAO’s report, primary recipients of the anthrax samples throughout the 12-year history of shipment included Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Germany Norway, Italy, Switzerland and United Kingdom. Besides Guam, secondary recipients include Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands.
For three years since the anthrax shipment was made public, the DoD has been attempting to reform its biosafety and biosecurity programs but GAO said the department has fallen short of meeting its goals, leaving government labs still at risk.
GAO found that DoD has made progress by taking a number of actions to address the 35 recommendations from the Army’s 2015 investigation report on the inadvertent shipments of live anthrax. “However,” GAO said, “DoD has not yet developed an approach to measure the effectiveness of these actions. … These actions are part of a broader effort to improve biosafety, biosecurity, and overall program management.”
GAO noted that safety lapses involving hazardous pathogens have occurred in the past at some of the DoD laboratories that handle biological select agents and toxins(BSAT).
“Such agents may cause serious or lethal infection in humans, animals, or plants. BSAT materials, such as the Ebola virus and Bacillus anthracis have been determined to have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety,” GAO said.
GAO’s information analysis said anthrax can multiply, spread out in the body, produce toxins and cause severe illness. Humans can be infected by breathing in spores, eating food or drinking water that is contaminated with spores, or getting spores in a cut or scrape in the skin. “Laboratories conduct research on BSAT for a variety of reasons, including identifying their characteristics and developing vaccines and other measures to help diagnose, prevent, or treat exposure to or infection by these agents,” GAO said.
GAO said DoD has failed to comply with some of the requirements under 2017 National Defense Authorization Act to address safety loopholes in labs. “The DoD D has not completed its BSAT infrastructure study to determine its infrastructure needs,” GAO said.
In March 2016, DoD established a new office to assist in overseeing the BSAT Biosafety and Biosecurity Program and implementation of GAO’s previous recommendations.
“Measuring the effectiveness of each implemented recommendation would help better determine if the actions taken are working, if there are unintended consequences, or if further action is necessary,” GAO said, “However, DOD has not developed a strategy and implementation plan for managing the program. Without a strategy and implementation plan, Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, and DOD’s laboratory facilities that currently produce and handle BSAT may be unclear about DOD’s strategy to harmonize BSAT operations to ensure safety, security, and standardization of procedures throughout DOD’s BSAT enterprise.”