TORONTO — Three laboratory test kits that may have mistakenly contained live anthrax and that were sent from the United States to Canada have not been used for years, the Department of National Defence and the Public Health Agency of Canada said late Tuesday.
A source close to the investigation in the United States confirmed that three test kits that may have contained live anthrax samples were sent to Canada by the U.S. Army laboratory at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
The three kits were supplied to two different labs. The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg received one of them, the Public Health Agency of Canada acknowledged in an emailed reply to questions.
Later, the Department of National Defence confirmed a research facility at Suffield, Alta., received two vials of the potentially live anthrax in August, 2007.
The department said the vials had been located at the Suffield facility and were being stored in an appropriate level of containment for anthrax. The research facility is called the Defence Research and Development Suffield Research Centre.
“Our records indicate that the 2007 samples in question have not been accessed in the last five years and there have been no safety issues associated with this sample at the Suffield Research Centre,” National Defence said via email.
Anthrax is the short name for the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, which is found in soil. It usually infects animals such as cows, sheep and bison.
Human infections are rare but can be fatal depending on the way the anthrax spores enter an infected person’s body. For example, inhaled anthrax is highly deadly but cutaneous anthrax — infection of the skin — is generally not, if properly treated.
The faulty test kits are part of a mushrooming problem for the U.S. Department of Defence.
In late May it was discovered that the Dugway lab had sent out unmarked live samples of anthrax — samples that it thought had been inactivated or killed — to a number of laboratories. Since the initial detection, an investigation led by the Pentagon and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has determined that more labs received the kits than was originally realized.
As well, it has come to light that laboratories outside the country — in South Korea, Australia and Canada — also received the affected test kits.
The kits are used to test a lab’s proficiency at detecting various pathogens. It allows a lab to see how reliable its tests are.
But the anthrax samples, in unlabeled vials, should have been inactivated. Lab technicians need to know in advance if they are working with live quantities of the dangerous bacterium so they can take appropriate precautions, both for their own safety and the safety of others.
One of the kits was sent in August 2006 to the National Microbiology Laboratory, which is part of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The agency said officials at the Winnipeg lab located the test kit in question in its secure inventory. They too said their kit had not been used for over five years.
The public health agency said there were no reports of illness among the Winnipeg staff who worked with the kit prior to that. The kit has been moved to a higher security area in the centre, the agency’s email said.
“Given the notification … about the potential that the bacteria is live, the product has been relocated to the NML’s Level 3 secure laboratory, following safety procedures,” it said. Previously the testing kit was housed in a Level 2 secure laboratory.
The public health agency said it is liaising with U.S. counterparts to determine what to do next.
— With files from the Associated Press
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Helen Branswell, The Associated Press