Anthrax Shipments: Can't Keep a Good Spore Down

The eagerly anticipated release of the US Department of Defense's report on the inadvertent live anthrax shipments that originated from Dugway Proving Grounds contains a lot of important information but--as expected--no smoking gun or scandal. 

The biggest takeaway from the report, to me, is that anthrax has evolved to become a very hardy organism with spores that are very resistant to being killed, even withstanding some irradiation procedures. This is not too surprising given what the entire function of a bacterial spores is: to protect the bacterium from harsh environmental and nutritional conditions. 

The issue with the mistaken shipments, in my view, is not that live anthrax was transferred between labs but that the recipients and senders did not know that the anthrax was live (which is indicated by a special sticker on the package).

The report contains several important recommendations to prevent such an occurrence from happening in the future. The DoD panel contained experts who offered well-reasoned analysis  derived from a comprehensive examination of the facts and science.

However, from many of the media interviews I did on the topic, the general public and lay press do not have a great understanding of the topic and harbor many misconceptions about anthrax. Several facts that I had to repeat many times included:

  • The fact that anthrax is not contagious.
  • The realization that anthrax is a worldwide natural disease, not just a biowarfare concern.
  • Live anthrax research occurs in specific labs.
  • Infectious pathogens are mailed from lab-to-lab on a regular basis, including live anthrax.
  • There is effective post-exposure prophylaxis for anthrax (vaccine and antibiotics).
  • That defensive research on anthrax, which is vital, is not a violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.

It's been 14 years since the US was in the midst of an anthrax attack and it is understandable that the level of knowledge of this microbe has waned, however it remains a threat and research on preparedness is crucial--points that are worth repeating as many times as necessary.