Pentagon denies lying about anthrax in May

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Pentagon denies lying about anthrax in May


The U.S. Department of Defense adamantly denied accusations that it lied to Korea about the number of anthrax samples shipped to the country, implying on Saturday through an email interview with the JoongAng Ilbo that local media had misunderstood the context of a former press release.

Answering an email sent by the JoongAng Ilbo’s Washington correspondent asking why the United States Forces Korea (USFK) misstated the number of anthrax samples sent to Korea in a May 29 statement, Pentagon spokesman Bill Urban replied some five and a half hours later in a 183-word letter that the USFK had “correctly informed” the public about the issue at the time.

“Following the inadvertent delivery of potentially live Bacillus anthracis, the 51st Fighter Wing at Osan Air Base correctly informed the public in the Osan area that the shipment supported the first Joint U.S. Forces Korea Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition program’s training at that location,” he wrote.

When a joint probe between Seoul and Washington announced on Thursday that a total of 16 anthrax samples were brought into the country by the USFK without the knowledge of Korean authorities, local media pointed to a May 29 press release uploaded on the website of the Osan Air Base, titled “Officials confirm no public risk at Osan Air Base,” and accused Washington of getting the numbers wrong.

The May press release read: “The laboratory biological defense training, part of the Joint United States Forces Korea Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition Program at Osan Air Base, has been halted pending further review… This was the first time the training has been conducted.”

Korean media outlets reported last week that the USFK had announced earlier this year the biological defense training, which incorporated anthrax samples, were first held in 2015, assuming it was also the first time the samples had been imported.

Urban’s reply over the weekend, however, suggests that the local public had mistaken “the first time” of the training as in the first in Korea, when the USFK had actually meant the first in Osan.

The anthrax case dates back to late April, when a live anthrax sample was mistakenly shipped to the Osan Air Base in Gyeonggi, where 22 personnel were possibly exposed to live anthrax spores.

The scope of the problem suggested extensive flaws in procedures used by the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, where the samples were supposed to be made fully inert before shipping them to overseas labs.

The exposed researchers and staff took antibiotics and vaccines and have yet to contract the disease. The live bacteria sample was immediately destroyed.

The joint investigation revealed 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.

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

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, CHAE BYUNG-GUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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