BIODEFENSE LAB ON THE DEFENSIVE



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Last Updated

12 Feb 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2003

Biodefense Lab on the Defensive

Calls for more funds to fight bioterrorism are met with cries for greater scrutiny at the United States' lead research facility.

By Charles Piller, Times Staff Writer

FREDERICK, Md. -- As the Bush administration proposes a dramatic increase in research funding to protect Americans against bioterrorism, congressional and scientific skeptics are calling for closer scrutiny of the nation's leading biodefense facility.

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md., has accumulated a record of environmental, safety and security problems.

In congressional testimony, internal reports and interviews, officials and former researchers at the institute have asserted that:

Dozens of laboratory samples, mostly noninfectious but crucial to biodefense research, were lost or misplaced during the 1980s and 1990s. Former employees say that controls on dangerous toxins were haphazard and record-keeping was spotty.

Twice in April 2002, anthrax spores escaped or were taken from high-security containment labs at the Army institute, despite a tightening of safety procedures after the 2001 anthrax mailings. Anthrax spores were found in a hallway and a locker room, prompting an urgent cleanup. No one is known to have been sickened by the leaks.

From 1946 until at least 1977, toxic waste from the institute and an earlier biowarfare program including vials of biological agents and anthrax-laced sludge was buried near Ft. Detrick. A decade ago, it was discovered that chemicals from the dump had leached into drinking water used by nearby suburban homes. The Army began a cleanup in late 2001.

Hundreds of employees, visiting scientists and trainees have passed through the institute with minimal screening, prompting suspicions that the perpetrator of the anthrax mailings in 2001, which killed five people and caused the closure of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, acquired the spores or the necessary knowledge at Ft. Detrick. An FBI investigation has focused on Steven Hatfill, a former scientist at the Army lab whom Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has described as a "person of interest." Hatfill has denied any connection to the mailings.

The commander of the research facility, Col. Erik Henchal, defended its three decades of research, which has produced a number of experimental vaccines and treatments.

He blamed the toxic-waste dumping on bioweapons projects discontinued in 1969, and he strongly disputed the notion that a current or former employee is responsible for the anthrax mailings.

Henchal, a microbiologist and career Army officer, said that mishandling of dangerous substances at the institute was rare and accidental exposures even rarer. And, he said, security has been enhanced since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Hot labs" that handle the most dangerous microbes now operate on a buddy system; no one works alone. Employees are randomly searched as they leave the facility.

Yet Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations, said doubts persist about the institute, stemming partly from its origins in a secret, Cold War-era bioweapons program. Shays said he will pursue an investigation into problems at the lab.

"It's a part of our military that hasn't gotten enough scrutiny," he said. "We need to take a very close look at what they've done and what they should be doing."

About 600 scientists and other employees of the institute, known by the acronym USAMRIID, work in an industrial-looking monolith of offices and labs in Frederick, Md., about 50 miles northwest of Washington.

The heart of the institute is a long hallway with small sealed windows and crash doors marked: "Infectious Area. No Entrance." This quarantine zone is protected by heavy security, including military checkpoints.

Scientists slog around in rubberized suits, trailing bright yellow air-supply lifelines. Cinderblock walls are painted with light-green epoxy to withstand the strongest antiseptics. Researchers study lethal biological agents such as the Ebola and Rift Valley hemorrhagic fevers in the most secure laboratories.

The institute has served as the forensics lab for the FBI's investigation into the anthrax mailings. Researchers have tested 30,000 samples of mail, office supplies and swabs of potentially contaminated surfaces, Henchal said.

USAMRIID was created in 1969 from the remnants of a massive bioweapons program begun in 1943. At the height of that earlier program, some 4,000 scientists and technicians pioneered "weaponization," the dark craft of breeding, drying, encapsulating, hardening and spraying disease agents. Munitions filled with anthrax, plague and other pathogens were tested in the air over sparsely populated sections of Utah, Army records show.

During congressional hearings in October, the Pentagon revealed that, from 1963 to 1968, microbes were sprayed from ships off San Diego; Oahu, Hawaii; and other areas in the Pacific to simulate a germ-warfare attack. The germs, then considered harmless, were later found to be potentially lethal for adults with compromised immune systems and small children.

In a similar experiment in 1950, a bacterium thought to be innocuous was sprayed over San Francisco. In widely published reports and in legal documents, the microbe was later blamed for a spate of illnesses and one death, that of an elderly man said to have suffered heart inflammation.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon renounced bioweapons and refocused the U.S. efforts on defensive research vaccines, treatments and similar measures. USAMRIID was created to do that work, using some of the same labs and personnel employed in the bioweapons program. Three years later, Nixon signed the Biological Weapons Convention, which permits only defensive research.

A legacy of the abandoned weapons program and of USAMRIID's early years lies buried at Ft. Detrick at a 399-acre site about a mile from the main base and a few hundred feet from neat suburban homes. It is known simply as Area B.

Live pathogens, possibly including anthrax, were tested there, according to a 1977 Army report.

In addition, the carcasses of animals infected in experiments were supposed to have been incinerated, but "were buried in Area B when the incinerator was inoperable," the report said. "The burial of animals and contaminated sludge has caused the area to be considered permanently contaminated with anthrax spores."

A decade ago, Maryland state officials detected hazardous levels of chemical solvents but no active biological agents in the drinking water of nearby homes. Area B was identified as the source.

In late 2001, the Army began a multimillion-dollar cleanup. Tents were erected around the dig area, along with an elaborate safety system that samples the air and freezes the ground beneath the dump to hold toxic substances in place.

Among the toxic waste so far uncovered are 96 vials containing biological material. Lt. Col. Don Archibald, who oversees the effort, said that about half the vials have been analyzed, and that several contained viable pathogens, including the organisms that cause pneumonia, meningitis and tuberculosis.

Workers excavating the site were taken to a local hospital for tests, but none became ill. No illnesses have been attributed to the tainted water, according to Gerald P. Toomey, an engineering consultant and co-chair of a community advisory board monitoring the cleanup. He said the full extent of contamination may not be known for years.

Said Archibald: "We are really dealing with the unknown. What took place here really didn't take place anywhere else."

Former USAMRIID scientists say the dump reflects chronic problems in maintaining control over its toxic inventory a particular concern at an institution that works with and regularly shares samples of pathogens with other labs. During a 1988 Senate investigation, a former USAMRIID virologist, Neil H. Levitt, said that two quarts of Chikungunya virus, which causes a flu-like illness, had disappeared from his lab.

David Huxsoll, then commander of the institute, said the virus had probably been heat-treated to render it noninfectious. But he acknowledged that Levitt's allegation was never formally investigated.

In 1992, the facility's chief of experimental pathology asked a staff member to tally laboratory samples that researchers had reported missing. It emerged that an experimental treatment for simian immunodeficiency virus, an HIV-like virus strain that affects monkeys, had been lost along with at least 27 specimens of anthrax spores and the viruses that cause hanta, Ebola and other diseases.

Army officials said that the samples, like the missing Chikungunya virus, were noninfectious and that most were later recovered. Former staff members and outside critics say the lapses are nonetheless worrisome because lab samples, in the wrong hands, could reveal sensitive information about U.S. biodefense research and readiness.

Last year's anthrax episodes, which involved highly refined spores similar to those used in bioweapons and biodefense research, stirred further concern about security at the institute.

The first incident was discovered April 8 when a researcher, on his own initiative, tested areas outside the containment labs and found infectious spores in a hallway and locker room. USAMRIID officials would not say what triggered the scientist's actions. About two weeks later, anthrax this time a noninfectious strain was discovered again outside the containment labs, according to lab officials.

The institute declined to release its investigative report on the two incidents.

Such episodes reflect an atmosphere of laxity, said Richard Crosland, 56, a physiologist who spent 11 years at USAMRIID before he was laid off in a round of budget cuts in 1997. Crosland said that while lab managers vigilantly tracked expensive equipment, they were careless about monitoring stocks of dangerous toxins.

"If you were missing enough botulinum toxin to kill a few thousand people, they didn't know anything about it," he said. When asked to account for hazardous substances, many scientists merely photocopied an old inventory and changed the date, he said.

"They never once had an audit of materials I had," he said.

After his dismissal, Crosland sued the Army for age discrimination. A federal court dismissed the suit, noting that a number of older scientists still worked at the institute. Crosland and two other plaintiffs have appealed.

Ayaad Assaad, 53, a former USAMRIID researcher and an expert on biological toxins, also said that oversight was sloppy at Ft. Detrick. Like Crosland, Assaad lost his job in the 1997 cuts and is pursuing an age-discrimination suit. He is now a toxicologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Assaad said that several years after he left the Army laboratory, its security office called him after an alarm sounded on a locked refrigerator filled with toxins and microbes. The officer was apparently unaware that Assaad had left the institute. Assaad said he was informed that he was still listed as the scientist responsible for the refrigerator.

"The security officer said, 'Yours is the only name on the roster,' " Assad said.

Candidates for jobs at USAMRIID must undergo a "national agency check," the standard background investigation for federal employees, said Henchal, the commander. This includes verification of education and the previous five years of employment and a search for criminal records going back three years.

Staff members with access to classified information must also undergo national security screenings.

Hatfill, the scientist identified as a "person of interest" in the FBI's anthrax investigation, did not undergo either background check when he joined the lab as a research associate of the National Research Council in 1997. Hatfill was one of hundreds of students, trainees and foreign scientists who have passed through the institute over the years, according to USAMRIID officials. Hatfill's background was vetted by the research council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, the country's premier scientific society. Such reviews typically involve examining letters of recommendation and educational transcripts.

After he came under FBI scrutiny, it emerged that Hatfill's resume included unfounded claims of having served in the U.S. Army Special Forces and of belonging to a prestigious British medical society.

Henchal said the research council's screening is more stringent today. But Ray Gamble, director of the council program that sponsored Hatfill, said there have been no substantive changes in how applications are reviewed.

"It's a scientific review that hasn't changed in hundreds of years. It's based on the technical proposal, the scientific merit," he said. "There are always opportunities for people to misrepresent themselves."

As part of its anthrax probe, the FBI administered polygraph exams to some of the institute's scientists. The results of those tests are not known. Henchal said there has been no wider security review of the USAMRIID staff but that a handful of foreign nationals were re-screened after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Henchal said that institute records, which he declined to disclose, showed "no evidence" that the anthrax used in the mailings was taken from USAMRIID "secretly or otherwise." The federal government spent $60 million on nonmilitary biodefense research in fiscal 2001, and $317 million in fiscal 2002. The Bush administration has asked for about $2 billion for the current fiscal year more than the combined research budgets proposed to fight breast and lung cancer, stroke and tuberculosis. The funds have yet to be approved by Congress, even though the fiscal year began Oct. 1. The money would fund several new high-security labs at universities and government agencies for work on vaccines and treatments for biowarfare agents.

Additionally, President Bush announced in his State of the Union address last month that he will propose spending $6 billion on developing and stockpiling biodefense vaccines over 10 years. These funds would be on top of regular annual biodefense spending.

Some critics question the wisdom of so rapid a buildup. If a military lab has had problems, they say, civilian labs nearly all inexperienced with exotic pathogens might generate more security concerns than they solve.

"This well-intentioned response may perversely have exactly the opposite effect," said Richard Ebright, a microbiologist and biowarfare expert at Rutgers University.

Skeptics point out that the Bush program will increase the number of people with knowledge of biowarfare agents. This, they say, will make crimes of domestic bioterrorism more likely and, because of the expanded pool of potential suspects, harder to solve.

Such concerns are "understandable but really spurious," said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which would disburse grants under the Bush program. "Bioterrorism and the need for biodefense is a reality. We can't walk away from it."

Fauci said that, since Sept. 11, 2001, federal biomedical research labs have dramatically tightened security, and that other institutions can do likewise.

"It's going to be a challenge," he said, "but I have every confidence that the biomedical research community will adapt well to the change."