Anthrax samples at North Austin lab might be connected to live anthrax shipment

AUSTIN (KXAN/AP) — A lab in north Austin is one of the sites that might have received live anthrax samples from the U.S. Army.

Tim Martin, a spokesperson for Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) based in San Antonio, says Signature Science located at MoPac and Steck Avenue received materials on April 8 that contained anthrax spores but the research group cannot say whether or not the samples were live because no one at the lab ever opened the package.

“The spores stayed in their original first and second containers and were maintained frozen while they were there,” explained Martin. “No employees were exposed and no one is being treated.”

The research agency has contacted the Centers for Disease Control and with the help of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, the samples were removed from the office on Tuesday, May 26.

“We were very fortunate in our situation that the samples were not opened,” said Janet Pichette, Chief Epidemiologist with the Austin Health and Human Services Department. “[The samples] were in a freezer and they were in not just one containment, but a secondary containment.”

A CDC spokesperson says the CDC took possession of the samples and they are no longer in Texas.

“We worked with the Austin Fire Department [hazardous materials] team to collect the samples,” said Pichette. “So, they secured the actual samples and then we went ahead and transported those to the state lab once those were secure.”

Signature Science, LLC. is a for-profit subsidiary of SwRI that works with government and commercial clients. As part of its work Signature Science handles chemical and biological materials, according to Martin. However, Martin says the company does not handle live pathogens.

Signature Science was one of six companies awarded a $20-million Defense Intelligence Agency contract in 2012, according to Department of Defense records detailing its bigger contracts. The contract is for what the Department of Defense describes as “supporting individual protective measures training courses.” The work is supposed to continue through August 2017. Federal records also show a contract with Signature Sciences in 2008 for a project related to what’s described as chemical mapping of urban and military environments.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Army’s top general said human error probably was not a factor in the Army’s mistaken shipment of live anthrax samples from a chemical weapons testing site that was opened more than 70 years ago in a desolate stretch of desert in Utah. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating that aspect of what went wrong at Dugway Proving Ground, the Army installation in Utah that sent the anthrax to government and commercial labs in at least nine states across the U.S., including Texas, and to an Army lab in South Korea.

Steve Erickson, of the volunteer military watchdog group Citizens Education Project, said the incident isn’t cause for panic but suggests more oversight is needed.

“Ever since 9/11, there’s been a propensity to throw money at biodefense,” Erickson said. “When you allow these activities to blossom and burgeon over a period of years without any effective oversight, you are asking for trouble.”

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told reporters Thursday the problem may have been a failure in the technical process of killing, or inactivating, anthrax samples. He ruled out human error.

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