vaccine plans don't worry mayor Fort Detrick is site of anti-anthrax work

January 09, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

Frederick Mayor Paul Gordon says he has no safety concerns about Army plans to produce anthrax vaccine at Fort Detrick for U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.

"They experiment with a variety of things out there," Gordon said of the post in the city. "They have always done it safely."

Military officials are planning to vaccinate Operation Desert Shield soldiers out of concern that Iraq might have developed an airborne anthrax weapon.

The disease primarily affects sheep and cattle but can be transmitted to humans. Inhaling anthrax spores can be fatal without treatment, medical experts say.

Frederick County health officer Dr. James Bowes said he knew nothing of plans to produce the vaccine.

The officials were contacted yesterday after reports, first published by Newsweek, that the Army is seeking to convert a cancer laboratory at the fort to produce anthrax vaccine. The only American lab now making anthrax vaccine, run by the Michigan Department of Public Health, is unable to produce sufficient quantities to meet the military's demands.

Army officials confirm that vaccine will be produced at the fort, a center for biological weapons research, but they strongly rebut Newsweek's suggestion the lab "may not have the safeguards required to contain the anthrax bacillus."

Skin contact with anthrax spores, the soil bacterium Bacillus anthracis, may result in treatable pustules, fever, nausea and headaches. But, when the spores are inhaled, the fatality rate is 90 percent in untreated victims, Newsweek reported.

There's some question whether troops can be inoculated before war breaks out, both because of the time required to produce enough vaccine and the need to administer it in three doses two weeks apart. Immunity begins to take effect between the second and third doses, said Chuck Fallis, spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Fort Detrick has long done anthrax research. In 1944, at then Camp Detrick, the Army produced 5,000 bombs filled with anthrax, but the Allies never used them.

Since 1969, when President Nixon ended biological weapons programs, Detrick has continued research to develop vaccines and treatments to defend against such weapons, including anthrax.

"We have never had an exposure outside of a laboratory building," said Norman Covert, post public affairs chief. He said lab wastes are sterilized at 280 degrees in a 20-minute procedure, "enough to kill the anthrax organism."

Covert said security surrounding Desert Shield restricts his ability to speak about the anthrax program. But he said "plans are in the offing at the moment to put together a vaccine development program working with the National Institutes of Health and the Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center" at Fort Detrick.

The cancer center is under control of the National Cancer Institute.

Chuck Dasey, a fort spokesman for the Army Medical Research and Development Command, said he hoped to "have a statement later this week" on the plans.

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