Army Suspends Germ Research at Maryland Lab
By SCOTT SHANE
Published: February 9, 2009
WASHINGTON - Army officials have suspended most research involving dangerous
germs at the biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., which the F.B.I.
has linked to the anthrax attacks of 2001, after discovering that some
pathogens stored there were not listed in a laboratory database.
The suspension, which began Friday and could last three months, is intended
to allow a complete inventory of hazardous bacteria, viruses and toxins
stored in refrigerators, freezers and cabinets in the facility, the Army
Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
The inventory was ordered by the institute's commander, Col. John P.
Skvorak, after officials found that the database of specimens was
incomplete. In a memorandum to employees last week, Colonel Skvorak said
there was a high probability that some germs and toxins in storage were not
in the database.
Rules for keeping track of pathogens were tightened after the 2001 anthrax
letters, which killed five people. But pressure to improve recordkeeping and
security at the Army institute intensified six months ago after the suicide
of Bruce E. Ivins, a veteran anthrax researcher, and the Federal Bureau of
Investigation's announcement that prosecutors had been preparing to charge
Dr. Ivins with making the deadly anthrax powder in his laboratory there.
A spokesman for the institute, Caree Vander Linden, said an earlier review
had located all the germ samples listed in the database. But she said some
"historical samples" in institute freezers were not in the database, and the
new inventory was intended to identify them so they could be recorded and
preserved, or destroyed if they no longer had scientific value.
One scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not
authorized to comment, said samples from completed projects were not always
destroyed, and departing scientists sometimes left behind vials whose
contents were unknown to colleagues. He said the Army's recordkeeping and
security were imperfect but better than procedures at most universities,
where research on biological pathogens has expanded rapidly since 2001.
The suspension will interrupt dozens of research projects at the institute,
whose task is to develop vaccines, drugs and other measures to protect
American troops from germ attacks and disease outbreaks. Ms. Vander Linden
said some critical experiments involving animals - often used to test
vaccines and drugs - would not be halted.
News of the suspension, first reported Monday by the Science magazine blog
ScienceInsider, comes as the Justice Department has been interviewing
scientists at the Army institute to prepare the government's legal defense
against a lawsuit filed by the family of Robert Stevens, the Florida tabloid
photography editor who was the first to die in the 2001 letter attacks.
That lawsuit, filed in 2003 and delayed by the government's unsuccessful
efforts to have it dismissed, accuses officials of failing to assure that
anthrax bacteria at Fort Detrick and other government laboratories were
securely stored. Dr. Ivins was not suspected in the attacks at that time,
but the F.B.I.'s conclusion last year added new weight to the lawsuit's
The F.B.I. has released evidence of Dr. Ivins's mental problems and of a
genetic link between the mailed anthrax and a supply of the bacteria in his
laboratory. But many of Dr. Ivins's former colleagues at the Army institute
have said they are not convinced that he mailed the letters.
The F.B.I. has asked the National Academy of Sciences to convene a panel of
experts to review its scientific work on the case, and the bureau and
academy are completing a contract for the review, said an academy spokesman,
The anthrax case has underscored the threat of biological attack by
biodefense insiders like Dr. Ivins, who have access to pathogens and the
expertise to work with them.
The number of such researchers has grown rapidly since 2001, when the
anthrax letters set off a spending boom on biodefense that led to a rapid
addition of laboratories working on potential bioweapons, notably anthrax.
Before 2001, only a few dozen such facilities worked with anthrax. Today,
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has registered 219
laboratories to do so, said an agency spokesman, Von Roebuck. He said 10,474
people had been cleared to work with dangerous pathogens and toxins
nationwide after background checks by the Justice Department.
On: 10.02.09 05:38
Md. lab germ research halted for records probe
By DAVID DISHNEAU - 5 hours ago
HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) - The Army said Monday it has suspended much of the
research at its flagship biological weapons defense laboratory at Fort
Detrick while it makes sure it has accounted for all of its dangerous germs
The decision follows a review of inventory controls prompted by the FBI's
conclusion that Fort Detrick scientist Bruce E. Ivins was responsible for
the anthrax mailings that killed five people and sickened 17 others in 2001.
Ivins killed himself in July after learning he would be charged in the
attacks. His attorney maintains he was innocent.
In a memo obtained by The Associated Press, Col. John P. Skvorak orders
workers to check all refrigerators and freezers at the U.S. Army Research
Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick for dangerous
materials not listed in the lab's database. The memo, sent Wednesday, refers
to "BSAT" materials, which are biological select agents and toxins.
"I believe that the probability that there are additional vials of BSAT not
captured in our ... database is high," Skvorak wrote.
The suspension started Friday, and the tedious process of counting thousands
of vials could take up to three months, institute spokeswoman Caree Vander
Linden said. She said it applies to all research on dangerous pathogens and
toxins except critical ongoing animal research and animal care.
Fort Detrick lab workers conduct research on the world's deadliest
pathogens, including the Ebola virus.
The strain of anthrax used in the 2001 attacks - RMR-1029 - was documented
but the FBI says Ivins kept a flask of it in a refrigerated storage room
that only he used.
Michael Brady, special assistant to Army Secretary Pete Geren, said
Skvorak's order reflects tightened security at Army biological research
centers nationwide in the wake of Ivins' suicide. In December, an Army task
force announced additional security training for workers at Fort Detrick and
four other labs.
"We have made it incredibly more difficult for another Bruce Ivins to
happen," Brady said.
He said he didn't know whether the other Army labs also have suspended
research while they check inventory against their records.
Brady said Skvorak's order is part of a cultural change at Fort Detrick,
where, in the past, workers who found undocumented vials "might have just
added it to the database or destroyed it without any notification at all."
Skvorak's memo, first reported by the Internet blog ScienceInsider,
attributed undocumented pathogens to accounting errors, transcription errors
or materials left behind by former employees.
Some lab workers have complained that the Army is trying to impose on
biological research an inventory-control scheme developed for nuclear and
chemical labs. They contend it's a poor fit since a small amount of living
material can be grown into a larger supply, making inventory reporting
difficult and time-consuming.
[The fact that "a small amount of living material can be grown into a larger
supply" is precisely why pathogen security is important.]
Brady acknowledged the challenge but said, "We have to do something. At the
end of the day, we have to figure out the best way forward."
Beth Willis, leader of the local watchdog group Frederick Citizens for
Bio-lab Safety, said the suspension underscores the need for a thorough
review of the risks of a planned Fort Detrick lab expansion.
"A stand-down of operations is appropriate, but it needs to continue until
all of these fundamental safety issues are addressed," she said.
excuse me but more than 7 years after the fatal anthrax attacks shortly after 911 they still don't have control of the nations foremost military research lab, where they expect that Dr Ivins created the anthrax used in the attacks, despite the lack of proof that he did it, and they harassed him and his family until he committed suicide, and they have now spread level 4 labs all over this nation so there are more people researching these dangerous pathogens, so they actually have less control, than they did prior to the anthrax attacks, is it just me or is this getting to be more like "Alice in Wonderland" and will we ever know the "truth"?
Dr Sidney Gottlieb used to keep an office at Fort Detrick called the Special Operations Division. He was the chief of the TSS branch of the Agency
DR Sidney Gottlieb
Monday, February 9, 2009
Army Suspends Germ Research at Maryland Lab