Anthrax Scare Is Attributed to a Testing Error

Published: March 16, 2005  (must register to view original article)

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. Tuesday.

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 Richmond, Va.

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.