For the second time this month Army officials have found evidence of an accidental release of anthrax spores in an Army biodefense research building in Frederick, Md., this one involving a different and relatively benign strain of the microbe.
The Army emphasized Tuesday that no military researchers had fallen ill from the apparent lapses, and it offered reassurance that the public was not at risk. But an Army official also acknowledged that the discovery, which a university anthrax researcher Tuesday called "highly embarrassing," indicated a failure to follow safety protocols at the high-security lab.
The Army's handling of the problem also drew criticisms from political leaders and the director of a company that does laundry for the lab, who said the Army did a poor job of communicating with the firm after it appeared that the biowarfare bacteria might have spread to the off-base laundry.
The two new contamination spots were found in Fort Detrick's Building 1425 during testing conducted last weekend, officials said. That testing, involving more than 800 swabs, had been initiated Friday after potentially deadly anthrax spores were found to have escaped from a sealed lab and spread to other areas inside the building.
The newly discovered spores, whose precise location in the building was not revealed, belong to a strain that is used in vaccine research and is not capable of causing anthrax, said Chuck Dasey, spokesman for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which operates the complex at Detrick.
The previous accidental release, first suspected April 8 after researchers found an apparent spill and confirmed by the Army last Friday, involved a strain that has not been identified but definitely is not the harmless vaccine strain, Dasey said. The spores were found in a locker room and adjacent hallway.
Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax researcher at Louisiana State University who used to work at Detrick, said the twin breachings of biological security were "highly embarrassing" and evidence of a lack of leadership there. "It looks like somebody made a mess, they tried to clean it up, they didn't tell anyone and they left."
But Tara O'Toole, director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, said that assessment was too harsh. Only four tests out of nearly 1,000 have come up positive, she noted.
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