Microbes make midnight run Germ collection moves unnoticed to new digs

March 28, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANASSAS, Va. -- The vials of bubonic plague, anthrax and yellow fever sat in squat stainless steel vats, frozen in liquid nitrogen and padlocked in a truck that said "Office Movers." The germs whizzed down the Washington Beltway, trekking quietly through miles of suburbs where an unknowing public slept soundly.

At the state line, Maryland state troopers handed off the convoy to Virginia, and a hazardous-materials team and a back-up truck rode alongside. It was a caravan of some of the world's most frightening germs, cruising around the capital city under a full moon on Friday the 13th.

That is what happened earlier this month when the world's most diverse collection of organisms moved from Rockville to Manassas. For security reasons, few had known when or how the overnight transfer would occur.

The American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) -- a repository of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other assorted organisms -- arrived safely. Not one of its 85,000 strains of microbes was lost, missing or killed during the 45-mile trip, officials say -- though they concede that it was hardly a leisurely evening drive.

"It was like moving Noah's Ark," said Raymond Cypess, chief executive officer of ATCC. "This sort of move had never been done before. It was a logistics nightmare."

The warehouse, based for more than 30 years in Rockville, moved to a larger campus in Prince William County, Va. Transporting the microbes took two years to plan -- all for a one-hour drive.

Moving wasn't always so complicated. When microbe collections were relocated in the late 1800s, scientists would move them in wicker baskets. And when this Washington-area collection, started in 1925, moved from Alexandria, Va. to Rockville in 1964, the story is that specimens were carried in suitcases.

Considered priceless, the nonprofit ATCC serves partly as a museum of microbes, preserving the original strains of organisms for research. Alexander Fleming's original penicillin strain is there, as are scores of cancer and HIV varieties. When people dying of rare diseases donate their bodies to science, their cells often end up here.

The repository operates like a mail-order business. Scientists browse and buy vials of obscure microbes for research. Lethal agents make up just three-tenths of 1 percent of the collection; they are sold, with government approval, to institutions, primarily for research into creating cures and antidotes.

But it is the germs that can be used for deadly weapons that make the warehouse famous. In the 1980s, when the United States and Iraq were on better terms, the collection, legally and with U.S. government approval, sold Iraq anthrax, botulism and other dangerous agents.

When tensions with Iraq reignited a few months ago, the planned move became a public relations nightmare.

"Of course, the timing couldn't have been worse," said Phil Baird, the vice president of operations, who planned the move.

The folks overseeing the collection's relocation openly acknowledge that they hoped to move the warehouse in darkness, when no one was around to see or protest.

"I told the state troopers, 'Absolutely no flashing lights,' " said Carolyn Pfude, a relocation consultant who was hired a year ago solely to plan the transfer.

The repository is used to being at the center of drama. Larry Wayne Harris, the Las Vegas man suspected in February of having deadly weapons-grade anthrax, was convicted in 1995 of ordering bubonic plague germs from the American Type Culture Collection. Harris and another man arrested in the scare were cleared of all biological weapons charges after tests showed the material was a harmless vaccine and not the deadly germ.

The incident prompted the government to enact tighter controls on the shipment of several dozen deadly agents.

Wanting to avoid more media attention, the repository tried to move the 2 million vials of microbes quietly. The specimens were moved in their refrigerators and then loaded onto about 15 trucks. These were followed by a chase truck with engineers and a generator on board in case the materials began to thaw. The trucks went two by two, throughout the night.

"We had to consider every possibility," said Baird, 52, an engineer with a soft Texas accent and a reputation for being calm in a crisis. "What if 15 tornadoes came down and knocked out our trucks? What if we had a breakdown? What if we had an earthquake? We had all kinds of people trying to imagine any kind of threat."

Baird's main fear was not so much that a vial of anthrax would somehow break loose (though he made sure the freezer containing that perilous bacteria was double-padlocked), but that the materials would get too hot and die or mutate.

Using tests on dummy freezers and incorporating information from scientists, Baird calculated that the organisms could be on the road for up to four hours before they became endangered. Ideally, that meant one hour on the road and three hours to spare. He fretted about traffic.

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