Bio-weapons sent into Korea by U.S. 17 times

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Bio-weapons sent into Korea by U.S. 17 times

A probe by Seoul and Washington into an erroneous shipment of a live anthrax sample to a U.S. military base in Korea revealed on Thursday that samples of the deadly bacteria have been brought into the country many more times over the past six years than initially known.

Since 2009, a total of 16 anthrax samples were brought into the country by the United States Forces Korea (USFK) without the knowledge of Korean authorities, according to the results of the joint investigation.

The USFK initially told the Korean government in May that only a single anthrax sample was shipped here and that it was the first time for such an occurrence.

A live anthrax sample was mistakenly shipped in late April to the Osan Air Base in Gyeonggi, where 22 personnel were possibly exposed to live anthrax spores.

These exposed researchers and staff took antibiotics and vaccines and have not contracted the disease so far, and the live bacteria sample was immediately destroyed. However, there was an outcry in Seoul over the potential risks.

In response, the United States and Korea in July formed a joint task force to investigate how live anthrax shipments entered Korea undetected. It was composed of military and foreign affairs officials.

The 15 other anthrax samples were shipped to the U.S. military base in Yongsan District, central Seoul, between 2009 and 2014 for biological testing purposes, according to the investigation.

Korean authorities said they were not aware of these anthrax shipments because customs officials here are not authorized to look into biochemical samples for the USFK that are labeled “inactivated.”

The joint investigation also found that aside from anthrax, the Osan Air Base also received a 1-milliliter sample of the Yersinia pestis bacterium that can cause the bubonic plague, according to the joint group. It was sent in April along with the live anthrax sample.

A Korean defense official explained that since 2013, the USFK has participated in a next-generation bio-surveillance program, the Joint USFK Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition (JUPITR), supported by the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, which conducts research and development for non-medical chemical and biological defense.

The anthrax and Y. pestis samples were sent from the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland and passed through Incheon International Airport. However, the joint group said that there were no safety risks involved.

“The USFK did not inform the Korean authorities,” the official said. “However, this did not violate and regulations.”

But Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said that the joint group has recommended new guidelines to regulate the delivery of biochemical samples to the USFK and bolster the transparency of the process.

The two countries held their biannual Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) meeting Thursday in Seoul, and the anthrax issue was raised.

“We have proposed joint recommendations to make mandatory steps for a SOFA joint committee to regulate the delivery of such samples,” a government official said. “There has been no precedent on measures to bolster security procedures for inactivated samples for testing.”

The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Thursday that it received a report from the Korea-U.S. joint working group on the results of the investigation and agreed that the two sides will continue to cooperate in the future based on measures established after this incident.

They recommended that the USFK notify the Korean government when bringing in bacterium samples for testing along with providing their details, and enable officials here to examine the samples if they do it jointly, unlike before.

There were concerns in Seoul that the results of the joint study were overly reliant on details provided by Washington.

Biological testing by the USFK labs has been halted since May.

Anthrax is a rare disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, and the agent can be used as a fatal biological weapon.

The disease is not contagious in the same way people might catch a common cold or the flu.

People become infected with anthrax when spores make their way into the body - breathing them in, eating food or drinking liquids contaminated with spores, or getting spores in a cut or scrape in the skin.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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