« Home | Castle insists on response from military, Pentagon... » | Monkey Shortage Threatens Germwar Vaccine Testing,... » | Biden, Carper, Castle want answers - Delegation as... » | Experts Call for New Approach to Biodefense » | Ex-DAFB commander says troops used as guinea pigs » | HHS Awards $232 Million in Biodefense Contracts fo... » | Two firms win smallpox contracts » | Biological Threat Assessment: Is the Cure Worse Th... » | New insights into Gulf War syndrome » | Former soldiers slow to report »

Army Anthrax Practices Raise Concerns Over Proposed Biodefense Labs in Urban Centers

Global Security Newswire

Mishandling of anthrax at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., in the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks, has raised safety concerns about proposed biodefense facilities that would handle dangerous microbes, USA Today reported today (see GSN, April 30).

Bruce Ivins, a biodefense expert involved in Operation Noble Eagle — the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the subsequent anthrax mailings — recounted a December 2001 incident at the laboratory in which his officemate complained about careless handling of samples that could be tainted with anthrax.

“I swabbed approximately 20 areas of (her) desk, including the telephone computer and desktop,” Ivins told Army investigators. Half of the samples “were suspicious for anthrax,” he said.

Ivins said he disinfected the desk and did not report the incident to his superiors.

“I had no desire to cry wolf,” he later told an Army investigator.

Such incidents were part of a larger pattern of mishandling of the pathogen, according to a 361-page U.S. Army report on the events of late 2001 and early 2002 at the institute.

The six-member team that worked in the USAMRIID lab that handled anthrax was increased to 85 researchers in the wake of the attacks that killed five people. Most of the new workers had to learn to handle the pathogen “on the fly,” according to USAMRIID’s commander, Col. Erik Henchal, who led the forensic effort.

Up to 70 researchers slept in cars or on cots to keep up with the workload, USA Today reported. Over the course of approximately eight months, the lab tested 30,000 suspicious envelopes, packages and other items. Researchers also tested about 320,000 environmental samples from locations such as the Hart Senate Office Building and Washington, D.C.’s Brentwood postal center.

“They were running just fantastic numbers of (anthrax) samples,” said biodefense expert D.A. Henderson of the University of Pittsburgh. “I’m not sure what they have accomplished is appreciated.”

Three strains of anthrax were found to have escaped from the Biosafety Level 3 laboratory in April 2002. Continued testing uncovered contamination in three other areas, including the office used by Ivins. Roughly 90 laboratory personnel were tested for exposure to anthrax, but no one became ill.

“The good news is nobody got the disease,” said Alan Zelicoff, a biodefense expert and consultant. “The bad news is that nobody got the disease because just about everybody near the BL-3 suite had been vaccinated.”

Such difficulties increase concerns about other proposed biodefense labs, some experts have said. About 50 maximum-containment labs nationwide harbor the deadliest bacteria, viruses and toxins, according to USA Today, and 40 new biodefense research labs are planned in cities such as Atlanta and Boston.

“The message here from a scientific and policy standpoint is profound,” said Zelicoff. “Facilities that are medical and microbiological may not be suitably equipped for dealing with aerosolized versions of the organisms that they otherwise deal with in great safety. ... These facilities probably ought not be located in a heavily populated area. How do you contain smoke?”

Accidents are rare and the kind of work deluge the Fort Detrick laboratory faced after the attacks is unlikely to be a factor in the future, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Most scientists do things in a very careful way,” Fauci said. “The chance that they’ll be working in the same rushed atmosphere they faced at Fort Detrick is very small” (Barbrow/O’Brian, USA Today, Oct. 14).