A change in a FedEx shipping policy sounds pretty routine, except for the fact that the one revealed yesterday by USA Today "potentially is a devastating blow" to science, as one lab director puts it. After it was revealed in May that an Army lab in Dugway, Utah, had been shipping out samples of live anthrax, FedEx sent the CDC a letter on July 17 saying packages holding "select agents"—that's an umbrella term for 65 types of viruses, bacteria, and toxins that are strictly regulated—would no longer be handled by the company. USA Today obtained a copy of the letter and reports that a statement from FedEx made plain that the move was a reaction to the anthrax revelation.
FedEx wouldn't confirm whether it was the company that ferried those anthrax packages, but USA Today notes the US Postal Service and UPS won't deliver select agents. Hence James Le Duc's assessment that this could be a real blow. As head of the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas, Le Duc says his lab fielded about two to three dozen such shipments a year for use in its infectious-disease research. The only remaining shipping option appears to be a company called World Courier, "but it does not provide nationwide service like Fed Ex," says a director with the Association of Public Health Laboratories. He fears what could happen if some sort of public health emergency tied to a select agent occurred. "The national public health response would be disrupted and delayed." (Read more FedEx stories.)