Anthrax Scare Is Attributed to a Testing Error
By SCOTT SHANE
Published: March 16, 2005
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WASHINGTON, March 15 - Health officials believe that a mix-up of samples in
a Defense Department contractor's laboratory was behind an anthrax scare
Monday and Tuesday that rattled the stock market, set the White House on
alert, shut three post offices in the Washington area and led to more than
800 people being offered antibiotics.
A senior military official said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday
night that "quality control problems" at the contractor's laboratory
appeared to have caused the bioterrorism false alarm.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that any laboratory
testing for anthrax usually kept a sample of anthrax on hand to calibrate
equipment. He said evidence suggested that the sample had somehow
contaminated an air filter from a Pentagon shipping center that had been
sent to the laboratory for routine testing last Thursday.
The error was compounded when the same contaminated sample was then sent for
a confirmation test to the Army's biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick in
Frederick, Md. The Army laboratory confirmed the positive test at 4 a.m.
Only after dozens of other swabs from walls, floors and machinery in the
Pentagon shipping facility were tested and all proved negative did officials
conclude that the initial positive test must have resulted from the
laboratory error, the official said.
The Defense Department official declined to identify the contractor, which
does routine anthrax testing on air filters from the Pentagon shipping
facility. Another government official said it was a private laboratory in
Health experts said little danger existed even if the tests had proven the
presence of anthrax in the buildings, because all mail entering the three
buildings was routinely irradiated to kill dangerous germs. They said that
there was never a potential danger to the general public from ordinary mail
or any other source.
Officials said that some tests remained to be conducted and suggested that
workers from the closed facilities who had started taking antibiotics keep
taking the drugs until all the tests were completed, probably on Thursday.
As a result of the initial positive test reported on Monday, officials
closed the mail-handling building at the Pentagon's Remote Delivery
Facility, which is next to the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.
Later on Monday, when a mail-handling machine shut down automatically at a
second Defense Department building, the Skyline office complex in Falls
Church, Va., officials feared that the machine might have detected germs and
closed that facility as well. Several hundred people were required to stay
in their buildings at the complex for as long as six hours Monday while
officials assessed the situation.
On Tuesday, the United States Postal Service shut a third mail center, the V
Street Postal Facility in Washington, because mail routinely moves from the
facility to the mailrooms at Defense and other federal departments. Workers
at all three mail centers were offered antibiotics, and most began a 60-day
course of treatment, officials said.
The episode provided a test for the emergency response and communications
systems set up after the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. In that case, which
has never been solved, fine anthrax powder in letters addressed to news
organizations and two United States senators killed 5 people and sickened at
least 17 others.