Entering into a lethal competition Aberdeen Proving Ground vies to build germ-warfare plant amid safety concerns

May 16, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Despite in-house concerns about safety, Aberdeen Proving Ground is competing to build a $150 million Army plant that would use live microbes to manufacture germ-warfare vaccines for all U.S. troops.

Other military installations seeking the project, which would employ as many as 200 civilians, include Fort Detrick in %o Maryland, Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, officials said.

The production of large quantities of vaccines against anthrax, botulism and other germ-warfare agents requires that the microbes be grown and processed. Antigens are extracted to produce the vaccines.

Fort Detrick in Frederick once seemed the logical choice for the factory, which could be as large as 325,000 square feet, but Aberdeen and other bases have joined the chase, according to various officials.

"No decision has been made," Harvey Perritt, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said Friday. He said the Army still may hire a private company to build the vaccine factory on nongovernment property.

Unannounced lobbying to bring the project to Aberdeen began last fall.

The proving ground would be an "ideal" location for the vaccine factory, Col. John M. Taylor, Aberdeen's deputy commander, said in a memo to the Army Materiel Command.

"We have an aggressive environmental compliance and achievement program that is capable of handling waste products and assisting in resolving any and all environmental concerns," he wrote.

The Sun recently obtained a copy of the memo.

But the installation's commander, Maj. Gen. Richard W. Tragemann, and others initially were worried about safety and whether surrounding communities would accept such a plant.

"Not sure we want the vaccine [factory] here," General Tragemann said in a handwritten internal memo dated Sept. 12, also obtained recently by The Sun.

"We have a hard enough time supporting [environmental and safety controls for] what's already here," the memo said. Later, General Tragemann agreed to seek the factory.

The Pentagon has identified the vaccine plant as an "urgent and compelling need"; the U.S. military went to war in the Persian Gulf with no reliable source of vaccines against the anthrax and botulism weapons the Iraqis were thought to possess.

Of the 500,000 U.S. troops who served, about 160,000 received vaccinations to protect against anthrax and botulism. The rarely used or experimental vaccines are among the many suspects being investigated in the search for the cause of veterans' ailments collectively known as Gulf War Syndrome, thought to affect up to 20,000 troops.

Last month, news reports said the Russian military was secretly developing more powerful biological weapons for which Western nations have no antidotes.

In addition to improved vaccines for anthrax and botulism, the Army's Science and Technology Master Plan lists numerous vaccines the service wants to obtain during the next decade, including those to counter bacteria that cause plague and brucellosis, encephalomyelitis viruses and ricin toxin -- all deadly or debilitating agents that could be used in weapons.

"Sometimes we use attenuated [or less dangerous] organisms, sometimes we use pathogenic organisms" to produce vaccines, said Anna Johnson-Winegar, director of Fort Detrick's medical biological defense program.

She said that, in general, quantities of infectious agents involved in vaccine production would range up to 500 liters at a time -- 130 gallons. Amounts currently used for research are only a fraction of that.

The vaccine factory, to be licensed and inspected by the Food and Drug Administration, also would have an animal facility, where the vaccines would be tested using infectious agents.

According to Army planning documents, the factory would have what the military calls Biosafety Level 3 containment to protect workers, guard against airborne releases of agents and prevent "cross-contamination within the production suites."

Protective measures include sealed rooms and ventilation systems that draw potentially contaminated air toward filters.

The facility, according to the planning documents, also would have a "decontamination sewer" with a capacity of 150,000 gallons per day. The sewer would collect potentially contaminated liquids and carry them to steam sterilization equipment.

Critics of the U.S. biological warfare defense program, on which the military is spending an estimated $80 million a year, say the vaccine factory raises the same safety questions that have existed for years concerning related research work at places such as Fort Detrick and Dugway Proving Ground near Salt Lake City.

"You are going to be working with some of the most dangerous substances known to man," said Andrew Kimbrell, an attorney for the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends.

"I would tell any community to stay as far away from that program as they can," said Mr. Kimbrell, whose group has forced the military in court to prepare environmental impact statements on the biological defense research program.

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