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Number of labs mistakenly shipped live anthrax by the military grows

Live anthrax was shipped to 51 labs across the country and to three foreign nations. That's a larger number than previously disclosed by the Pentagon, and there could be more. Judy Woodruff talks to Nancy Youssef of The Daily Beast.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The Pentagon today gave new information about that scare over live anthrax samples. Officials said 51 labs in 17 states, plus Washington, D.C., and three foreign countries received the suspected live spores. That's a larger number than what was previously disclosed.

    At a news conference today, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work sought to reassure the public.

    ROBERT WORK, Deputy Secretary of Defense: We continue to work with the CDC to ensure that all possible safeguards are taken to prevent exposure at the labs in question and that any worker that might have had risk of exposure, even to these low-concentrated samples, they are closely monitored.

    We know of no risk to the general public from these samples. To provide context, the concentration of these samples are too low to infect the average healthy individual. Everyone in the Department of Defense takes this issue very seriously, because it is a matter of public health and also the health of all of the members of our department.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Joining me now to tell us more about what happened and the response is Nancy Youssef. She's the senior national security correspondent for The Daily Beast.

    Nancy, welcome back to the program.

    So, many more samples of anthrax were sent out to these labs than was known before. Why is this coming out in bits and pieces like this?

  • NANCY YOUSSEF, The Daily Beast:

    Well, part of it is that it takes several days to determine which samples were sent out that were positive and which were negative.

    This is out of 400 lots, and from each lot comes several scores of samples that are sent to various labs, and so they're going through lot by lot and doing testing. The number that we're giving is only out of four lots, 1 percent. And in 100 percent of the cases that have tested so far, it has come back positive for anthrax.

    And so it portends of a lot more laboratories and states coming up as recipients of live anthrax.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So there could be more coming out, is what you're saying?

  • NANCY YOUSSEF:

    Yes, that's right. The briefing that you showed today, they said it repeatedly to anticipate more.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, tell us, what is it — they said today that so far no one has been infected. Are they certain of that and what are they saying about the danger to the public?

  • NANCY YOUSSEF:

    Well, they're saying no one has been infected, but they're also giving antibiotics to 31 personnel, nine of them here, 22 overseas, as a precautionary measure.

    And so there is some concern on that point. But to the public, it doesn't appear that there was any danger because these are samples that are sent to laboratories, laboratories often that — whose technicians are vaccinated, whose facilities are well protected for such measures.

    And so the danger is not so much to the public in terms of getting anthrax through those shipments, but the idea of live anthrax being sent out to an untold number of laboratories, states and workers.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So why is it being shipped out to so many places?

  • NANCY YOUSSEF:

    So, what happened after the anthrax letter scare of 2001, in which powdered anthrax was sent to Senator Daschle and a number of news agencies, is there was a real uptick in funding for research on anthrax and detection methods, because there was a fear that this was going to be an external threat, a form of bioterrorism.

    As it turns out, it was an internal threat. And so the DOD keeps these spores, if you will, provides them to these laboratories for the purpose of doing detection research, other kinds of research to ensure that places can prevent anthrax from being brought in.

    For example, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency was one of the ones to receive live anthrax, and they use that to detect — to make sure that those coming to the Pentagon are not bringing in live anthrax with them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And just quickly, finally, Nancy, are they any closer to understanding why this happened, what was the lapse?

  • NANCY YOUSSEF:

    No.

    And, in fact, today's press conference suggested that we're further away from answers. They said that they had methods in place to make sure that live anthrax didn't go out. And yet, because there is no standard practice, that everybody sort of has their own way of determining what's accepted, and the fact that 100 percent of the cases they have tested so far showed up positive, it suggests that at the minimum there was a fundamental flaw in their prevention methods.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Nancy Youssef with The Daily Beast, thank you for following this for us.

  • NANCY YOUSSEF:

    Thank you.

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