The U.S. military may have improperly stored and handled bacteria samples that could cause plague, admitted a Pentagon spokesperson.
The Defence Department laboratories had previously been severely criticized for their negligence when storing anthrax and other toxins. Live samples of the Bacillus anthracis bacteria were shipped to 86 research labs around the world, and recently a Utah center reported an anthrax contamination following such a transport.
As a result, an investigation was initiated, meant to assess the labs’ compliance with safety measures related to the production, handling, testing, storage and shipment of biological agents and toxins. So far, it discovered several instances of incomplete record-keeping in several centers.
Moreover, it drew attention to the fact that the live spores were mistakenly shipped to 20 states and to Washington D.C., as well as to Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, U.K., Italy and Germany.
Now however, the investigation was extended, with an aim to verify the transportation and storage of 2 mosquito-borne viruses which lead to potentially lethal brain damage, and the Yersinia pestis bacteria, known to cause plague.
This decision was taken following inspections from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which identified plague bacteria in a freezer outside the laboratory containment area of a military research center from Maryland.
Theoretically, the Edewood Chemical Biological Center should have been one of the Army’s top security labs, but safety precautions were inadequate.
Pentagon officials have responded to the health crisis, by declaring that currently the samples do not pose a risk to the public or to lab workers because they are not infectious, and that an inquest is under way to determine if any of those improperly stored substances were shipped elsewhere.
The Yersinia pestis bacteria can cause pneumonic plague, which damages the lungs, and septicemic plague, which leads to bacteria multiplying in the bloodstream. The two diseases have high mortality rates and are easily contagious through coughing, which is why early detection and immediate antibiotic treatment are essential.
The viruses spread by mosquitoes, which were also identified as inadequately stored and mislabeled, carry Eastern equine encephalitis and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. Equine encephalitis originates in horses, and transmission to humans requires mosquitoes capable of transmitting the virus from infected birds to mammals.
The most common areas of contamination are freshwater hardwood swamps, which is why the majority of reported cases are in Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Georgia. Mortality rates are at around 33%, although even survivors generally sustain mild to severe permanent brain damage.
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