Inside the Secretive world of bio-defense research

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.

Moreover, officials point out that continuing testing has shown the suspect samples of plague contain a weakened version, and not the fully virulent form that was of concern to lab regulators at the CDC.

There is no danger to the public from the plague and encephalitis specimens found in the labs, said Army spokesman Dov Schwartz. After extensive testing, no danger has been found to scientists and researchers who have worked with the vials, he said. Final test results are expected by the end of the month.

However, for the first time since the scandal broke in May about an Army lab’s botched handling of anthrax, the Pentagon is now acknowledging that worries now extend to other lethal agents that it studies. In addition to the plague samples and some additional anthrax specimens, the CDC has raised concerns about military labs’ handling of specimens created from two potentially deadly viruses that are also classified as bioterror pathogens: Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus and Eastern equine encephalitis virus, which can cause rare but serious illnesses in people, including deadly inflammation of the brain.

The bacteria that cause plague, Yersinia pestis, can cause several types of serious and potentially fatal illnesses: bubonic plague, which has symptoms that include swollen lymph nodes; pneumonic plague, which involves the infection spreading to the lungs; and septicemic plague, which may involve skin and other tissues turning black and dying. It’s the pathogen often blamed for the Black Death that killed millions of people in Europe during the 14th century. Today antibiotics can be used to treat the diseases, but plague still kills about 11% of those sickened, according to the CDC.

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