Md. company makes kit to test anthrax

January 18, 1991|By Timothy J. Mullaney

The nation watched Wednesday as Operation Desert Storm went about what always figured as the easy part of a Middle East war -- gaining control of the skies. But at a small biotechnology company in Columbia, about 40 employees put in the latest of their 10-to-12-hour days preparing to help soldiers deal with one of the hard parts.

The little company is called New Horizons Diagnostics Corp., and it is supplying the Pentagon with kits to identify the deadly anthrax toxin in soldiers' blood if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein decides to use his much-feared stockpile of biological weapons.

"We didn't set out to be a military contractor. We still don't want to be primarily a military contractor," said David Trudil, the company's vice president. "Clearly, we hope no one will use the tests."

The tests actually work a lot like a product many people are familiar with -- the home pregnancy test. Make a small prick in a soldier's skin, wipe the blood onto a swab, mix it with solution and a chemical reagent in a vial for five minutes, and then put the swab into a test device about the size of a man's hand. About 25 minutes later, there's a purplish dot if the test is positive, no dot if the test is negative.

"It's very portable and easy to use at a field hospital," said Chuck Dasey, spokesman for the Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick in Frederick. "This process isn't real hard. It's kind of high-tech made simple."

Anthrax poisoning is deadly in up to 95 percent of all cases if it isn't treated, and it's easy to miss because its symptoms resemble the flu. But Mr. Trudil said it can be treated with antibiotics.

Additionally, Iraq's biological-warfare capabilities will be hard to wipe out because a tiny amount of the toxins could cause major problems if released on a battlefield or elsewhere, Mr. Trudil said.

The Army initially gave New Horizons a contract to design and make the anthrax identification kits last spring, well before Iraq's August invasion of Kuwait. The company originally was supposed to supply the kits by this spring, Mr. Trudil said, but events intervened.

"We did it [designed the test] in about three weeks, which is incredibly fast," after the Army asked New Horizons to speed up the project, he said.

The company is now developing other tests to detect biological-warfare toxins, but Mr. Trudil said he can't disclose details. The company usually makes diagnostic kits for sexually transmitted diseases, strep throat and other health problems.

Mr. Dasey said New Horizons' anthrax-test kits detect fewer toxins than earlier prototypes made by other companies but that the Army is using New Horizons' kits because they are much easier to use.

The company has added 12 temporary employees in the past week and expanded its workweek to seven days to make what the Army says are 40,000 kits that can detect anthrax in the blood.

Larry Loomis, the company's president, was too busy to give an interview, referring questions to Mr. Trudil, who pulled out a calculator when asked how many hours he worked last week.

Mr. Trudil said the company's manufacturing workers are putting in about 10 hours a day, the rest of the employees closer to 12.

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