On Wednesday, Pentagon officials told reporters that Dugway Proving Ground in Utah had inadvertently shipped live anthrax to commercial labs in nine states – California, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas and Wisconsin – and South Korea.
Whoops! Go on…
“The best I can tell there was not human error,” chief of staff Raymond Odierno told reporters on Thursday, Reuters reported, while cautioning that the information was based solely on preliminary reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating the failure.
WTF? Are machines doing everything? I doubt it: (boldface mine):
It is unclear, for example, what protocols were in place to inactivate the bacteria, and to confirm that status before the anthrax was shipped and received.
“The incident involved exactly the same chain of errors as the CDC shipments of live anthrax bacteria in 2006 and 2014,” Richard H Ebright, professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told the Guardian in an email.
Ebright said technicians failed to “inactivate a sample, followed by a failure to confirm inactivation before shipping the sample, followed by … a failure to confirm inactivation upon receiving the sample”.
“This seems to be a problem that happens pretty regularly,” said Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a senior associate at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.
“Even if people are not following the protocol … then perhaps the protocol should be modified to make sure it’s easier to follow, and more likely to bring about compliance. It’s more, to me, that not enough is known about the situation.”
Science involves testing your materials, both the ones you receive and send.
This, as the scientists interviewed noted, a managerial issue: you need procedures and protocols in place–and the institutional understanding that following these procedures is a high priority–to prevent these releases from happening.