On guard against bioterrorism

Focus is on defense at Fort Detrick labs

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 20, 2001|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - Just beyond the main gate to Fort Detrick, to the right of the black-bereted soldiers with M-16 rifles and a light armored vehicle poised to blast any truck bomber, sits an ordinary-looking, two-story beige building.

Barely visible through the trees, the building is home to government scientists working with the world's most lethal biological agents.

Anthrax. Botulism. Ebola. Smallpox. Plague. The building houses one of only two government labs in the country equipped to handle Biosafety Level 4 materials - the deadly microbes, germs and viruses that require the most elaborate safety precautions and secure containment.

It is here that the anthrax spores on letters sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and others were sent for identification, testing and analysis.

They are experts on anthrax at Fort Detrick because Army scientists used to make it there, until President Richard M. Nixon ended the nation's germ warfare efforts by executive order in 1969.

It was produced in an oatmeal-like slurry by the gallons at one time, according to the fort's historian. The stockpiles have long since been incinerated and buried.

Building 470, where batches of deadly germs were brewed in 3,000-gallon anthrax fermenters, stands locked and empty, its concrete walls pocked from repeated decontaminations with harsh chemicals.

Since offensive germ warfare programs ended, the focus here has been on finding ways to defend the nation against bioterrorism attacks, and the recent anthrax exposure cases have the fort's testing technicians working around the clock.

Three shifts a day

"The staff is working three shifts a day, seven days a week on this," said Maj. Gen. John S. Parker, the commanding general at Fort Detrick.

"These folks are totally focused on the quality of their work. They want the tests to be done right," Parker said.

The work is taking place under the aegis of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, one of three major units at Fort Detrick.

About 450 people work for the institute, including 100 doctoral-level scientists.

During the Clinton administration, its budget was reduced and staff was cut.

The institute's core mission is conducting research into medical counter-measures - such as vaccines - to protect military service members from biological threats and naturally occurring infectious diseases.

Other projects

Among other projects, the institute's scientists are working to develop a new, more effective anthrax vaccine.

"The older vaccine is safe - I've taken it - but it was developed in the early 1970s, and this is the 21st century," Parker said.

"We're working on a new vaccine for anthrax, but it will take several years."

About 30 diagnostic technicians are assigned to anthrax tests, Parker said - up from a normal staff of 24 who test substances brought to the lab by the FBI and other government agencies.

The institute's broader bioterrorism defense research has continued on course, Parker said.

Controlling the substance

Because anthrax is treatable with antibiotics, the testing is being done in a Biosafety Level 3 lab, according to Charles Dasey, the fort's public affairs officer.

The substance is carefully controlled, but technicians don't have to don pressurized suits while working with it, he said.

They wear surgical scrubs, latex gloves and eye protection and shower before leaving the lab, he said.

"The people working with anthrax in the lab are vaccinated - in fact, they have to be vaccinated," Dasey said.

Samples usually arrive by courier, in sealed containers, according to fort officials.

"In the past, we would maybe receive the odd sample [of a suspected biologic agent] every week," Parker said. "Since the [Brokaw] letter in New York, the number of samples is going into the hundreds."

When a sample comes in, its source and characteristics are recorded, and technicians begin a series of tests to identify it.

Strict procedures

They follow strict chain-of-custody procedures in handling the substance to preserve its value for use in criminal proceedings, Parker said.

Tiny samples are examined first under a microscope.

Some are placed in growth mediums in a petrie dish to try to make them grow; others are tested for their reaction to various antibiotics.

Of the anthrax testing, he said, "We're very good at identifying what it is and its sensitivity to antibiotics."

Tests to determine the particular strain - important in identifying possible common sources - are done by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, he said.

Parker said the broader biomedical research work that the institute does is used by private contractors to develop drugs and vaccines against tropical and infectious diseases.

The private sector shepherds the drugs through trial tests and Food and Drug Administration approval, he said.

Established in 1943

The government established the institute in 1943 to develop and test biological weapons.

It has been used for defense since President Nixon's 1969 executive order.

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