Md. experts' key lessons on anthrax go untapped

Fort Detrick's veteran researchers studied bioweapons for 26 years

War On Terrorism

November 04, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The illness began with the familiar aches and fever of flu, and the doctor at Fort Detrick reassured William A. Boyles it was nothing serious. But when his temperature shot up on Thanksgiving Day 1951, Boyles checked into Frederick Memorial Hospital.

Doctors there panicked when they learned of Boyles' work as a microbiologist in the United States' top-secret biological warfare program. Fearing he might be carrying some exotic disease, they moved him to the Fort Detrick hospital, where he lapsed into a coma and died.

The local newspaper and the death certificate said pneumonia had killed the 46-year-old father of two, but Army doctors learned the real killer was anthrax. Not wanting to terrify the residents of pastoral Frederick County, they covered it up.

"We were brought in and told not to discuss it," says Charles M. Boyles, 59, who runs a Frederick plant nursery. He was a boy of 9 when his father died. "It was a traumatic thing to go through."

William Boyles' death was the first of three disease fatalities, including two from anthrax, in America's biological weapons program, which lasted 26 years before being shut down in 1969. Now, as anthrax attacks have killed four people and sown chaos in federal offices and the U.S. mail system, some Fort Detrick veterans believe invaluable scientific lessons from those years are being ignored.

Charged with deterring a germ attack from the Soviet Union, Army scientists created a formidable arsenal from the likes of Bolivian hemorrhagic fever and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, tularemia and smallpox.

They loosed deadly aerosols on thousands of animals and sprayed simulants over U.S. cities to learn how to spread infection efficiently. Some of their weapons were terrible beyond imagination -- big bombs that scattered 100 or more bomblets, each of which would explode with billions of disease-carrying bacteria.

In all those years, no microbe was more tweaked, tested and stockpiled for a future biowar than anthrax. Which makes it all the more puzzling to some Fort Detrick retirees that in the month since the first anthrax death, top government officials have failed to tap their expertise.

"I'm not eager to get into it, but I'm a little surprised no one has asked," says Edgar W. "Bud" Larson, 75, former chief of the aerobiology division at Detrick. Lately he has been building an oak television cabinet at his Frederick home. But he and another retiree, Joseph V. Jemski, did the fundamental research in the 1950s and '60s on how anthrax kills mammals.

Or take Manuel S. Barbeito, 71, the aerobiology safety chief for many years and an expert on decontamination. "I'm upset that people are speaking out that don't have expertise," Barbeito says.

This might sound like the routine grumbling of old-timers in any field. It's not. It's a crisis that has top Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials changing their advice daily, explaining apologetically that they have no experience with anthrax as a weapon, while the Detrick veterans have knowledge no one else has.

"They could have cleared up a lot of the confusion early on," says Norman M. Covert, a former Detrick public affairs officer and author of a history of the base. For example, several current bioterror experts have publicly stated that anthrax spores cannot pass through paper, such as the sealed letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Wrong, Covert says. The early Detrick work showed spores, with a size of 1 to 5 microns, can pass through the 10-micron holes in paper. He recently proved it by experimenting with talcum powder, in which the particles are 4 to 10 microns in size. "Pat the envelope and it comes flying out," he says.

Covert said that to his knowledge only one Detrick anthrax veteran, William C. Patrick III, has been consulted in the current episode. But there are others with specific expertise.

Larson, for instance, has simmered in frustration as terrorism specialists and government officials misstated the meaning of the estimated lethal human dose of 8,000 to 10,000 anthrax spores, which his animal work at Detrick helped establish.

Many doctors and journalists have incorrectly assumed that dose is the minimum necessary to produce inhalation anthrax. In fact, it is an average -- the dose that would kill half of people exposed. Some people, who might be particularly susceptible, probably can be killed by doses of 100 or fewer spores.

"The public is being misled," Larson says.

Or take the pressing question of how to decontaminate a growing list of buildings, including dozens of mailrooms, sprawling congressional offices and postal sorting centers loaded with costly machinery.

The Environmental Protection Agency and outside contractors have been pondering the best methods -- but they haven't consulted Barbeito, who has decontaminated more anthrax-laced buildings than anyone else in this country.

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