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Last Updated

16 Dec 2002

Source: Associated Press, May 21, 2002.

New Boss Tackling Germ Lab Problems


FREDERICK, Md. (AP) -- Maj. Gen. Lester Martinez-Lopez took over the Army's germ warfare defense laboratory as it was recovering from reports of lax security, misplaced pathogens and other unprofessional conduct.

Soon after his arrival, his job became even more complicated with the latest bad news -- anthrax spores had been discovered in the lab.

Martinez, tapped in March to head the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, faces the twin challenges of helping fight the war on bioterrorism and trying to clean up operations at the lab at the forefront of the battle.

Last month, an anthrax spill in the Fort Detrick laboratory, known as USAMRIID, led to the discovery of anthrax spores outside containment areas designed to prevent such releases.

Martinez said a new program aimed at clarifying Army rules for handling, shipping and storing biological agents should strengthen public trust in the institute, which plays a central role in the investigation of last fall's anthrax mailings.

"We have good systems, but we're going to make them even safer,'' the Puerto Rican-born physician said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The safety and surety of USAMRIID is of overarching concern.''

Scientists at the 32-year-old laboratory develop vaccines and antidotes for diseases soldiers could encounter in the field, either naturally or as targets of biological weapons.

FBI agents tapped the lab's expertise after the anthrax mailings that killed five people and sickened 13 others last year. The FBI is a constant presence at Fort Detrick, guarding samples of anthrax sent there by other research labs for genetic analysis.

FBI agents have also questioned Detrick scientists, investigating the possibility that the tainted letters were sent by someone with expertise learned at USAMRIID or with access to the lab.

Locally, Fort Detrick is under pressure from Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty to be more forthcoming about its operations, including the cleanup of an old dump that contains toxic chemicals and -- the Army recently learned -- infectious pathogens.

Martinez, 46, is used to high-pressure assignments. He was part of the multinational force sent to the Middle East after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. He was chief medical officer for the U.S. mission to Haiti in 1995, after U.S. troops intervened to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.

He was sent to Central America in 1998 to oversee medical relief for victims of Hurricane Mitch, which killed at least 8,500 people.

Martinez "is a soldier and physician uniquely qualified'' for his new assignment, said Lt. Gen. James B. Peake, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command.

Although his job is protecting and training soldiers, Martinez said the work being done at Fort Detrick can enhance public health. To that end, he said the Defense Department is reaching out to other public agencies and private institutions to collaborate on bioterrorism defenses.

"The issue is, how do we capitalize not only on our work but on the work that everybody is doing around the world and use it in such a way that we can focus that new technology on systems that can really make a difference -- to the soldier on point and, in the long run, for the good of everybody,'' he said.