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Report Finds Anthrax Contamination at U.S. Institute

Global Security Newswire

A new report has indicated that there were multiple incidents of anthrax contamination outside biocontainment areas in 2001 and 2002 at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland, the Associated Press reported today (see GSN, Oct. 14, 2004).

The report exposed careless practices by workers at the site as they dealt with an influx of samples submitted for testing. The contamination did not cause any infections, AP reported.

The Army tightened security at the facility after acknowledging an accidental release in April 2002. No additional leaks have been reported since.

The report, first obtained by The Frederick News-Post, states that anthrax spores appear to have contaminated areas months before the April 2002 incident. This occurred while the facility was processing tens of thousands of items and environmental samples, including letters carrying anthrax that were sent to two U.S. senators.

One employee in December 2001 told institute microbiologist Bruce Ivins that she might have been exposed to anthrax while handling a letter. Ivins found what appeared to be traces of the agent on her desk, and decontaminated the area without alerting his superiors.

Ivins told investigators that he treated the area because he was concerned that the substance might not be contained.

Two researchers in April 2002 reported to Ivins that anthrax had leaked from two flasks. Ivins reported this incident to higher-ups, who then discovered anthrax on nasal swabs of one of the workers. This person had been vaccinated against the agent and did not become ill.

Ivins conducted additional unauthorized sampling of noncontainment areas on April 15, AP reported. He discovered spores in his office area, in a pass box and in a changing room. All three tested positive for a disease-causing form of the pathogen, and the changing room was found to be contaminated with two pathogenic forms.

The amounts detected were not enough to endanger the public or workers at the site, according to C.J. Peters, biodefense director at the University of Texas Medical Branch Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases. Peters was deputy commander at the Army institute until 2000.

According to the report, there were probably several instances of anthrax contamination. It found that the likely cause of the leak was the use of old, ineffective bleach in cleansing the pass box, which is used to move materials from laboratories through noncontainment areas.

The report also found that the pass box contamination might have occurred after a letter from the 2001 anthrax attacks was opened. It might have contaminated plastic bags used to transport material.

Institute Commander Col. George Korch Jr., who served as deputy commander in 2002, said no disciplinary action has been taken against individuals named in the report.

“One thing you really want to avoid is, if you find a safety violation, you want to make sure there is an openness and acceptance about not being too punitive. You want to make people feel that they are openly contributing in a way that is not going to shut down (their) inclination to say ‘Hey, this happened,’” Korch said (Associated Press/WTOP, April 19).