Anthrax, other pathogens lost at Fort Detrick in '90s

'92 Army inquiry details security, labor problems at W. Maryland facility

Degree of danger is unclear

January 21, 2002|By Jack Dolan and Dave Altimari | Jack Dolan and Dave Altimari,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Lab specimens of anthrax spores, Ebola virus and other deadly pathogens disappeared from the Army's biological warfare research facility at Fort Detrick in the early 1990s, during a turbulent period of labor complaints and recriminations among rival scientists there, documents from an internal Army inquiry show.

The 1992 inquiry at the Frederick facility also found evidence that someone was secretly entering a laboratory late at night to conduct unauthorized research, apparently involving anthrax. A numerical counter on lab equipment had been rolled back to hide work done by the mystery researcher, who left the misspelled label "antrax" in the machine's electronic memory, according to the documents obtained by The Hartford Courant.

Experts disagree on whether the lost specimens pose a danger. An Army spokeswoman said they do not because they effectively would have been killed by chemicals in preparation for microscopic study. However, a prominent molecular biologist said that resilient anthrax spores could be retrieved from a treated specimen.

A scientist who once worked at the Army facility said that because of poor inventory controls, some of the missing specimens might not have been treated.

The incidents provide clear indications of problems of organization and security in some quarters of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, at Fort Detrick, in the 1990s.

It is unclear whether the Ames strain of anthrax used in the mail attacks last fall was among the strains of anthrax in the 27 sets of specimens reported missing at Fort Detrick after an inventory in 1992. An Army spokeswoman, Caree Vander-Linden, said at least some of the lost anthrax was not Ames. But a former lab technician who worked with some of the anthrax later reported missing said that all he ever handled was the Ames strain.

Meanwhile, one of the 27 sets of specimens has been found and is in the lab. An Army spokesman said it might have been in use when the inventory was taken. The fate of the rest, some containing samples no larger than a pencil point, remains unclear. In addition to anthrax and Ebola, the specimens included hanta virus, simian AIDS and two that were labeled "unknown," an Army euphemism for classified research.

A former commander of the lab said in an interview that he did not believe that any of the missing specimens were ever found.

Vander-Linden said last week that in addition to the one complete specimen set, samples from several others were located, but she could not provide a fuller accounting because of incomplete records on the disposal of specimens.

"In January of 2002, it's hard to say how many of those were missing in February of 1991," said Vander-Linden, adding that some were likely thrown out with the trash.

The 27 specimens were reported missing in February 1992, after a new officer, Lt. Col. Michael Langford, took command of what was viewed by Fort Detrick brass as a dysfunctional pathology lab.

Langford, who no longer works at Fort Detrick, said he ordered an inventory after he saw that there was "little or no organization" and "little or no accountability" in the lab.

A factor in Langford's decision to order an inventory was his suspicion - never proved - that someone in the lab had been tampering with records to conceal unauthorized research. As he explained later to Army investigators, he asked a lab technician, Charles Brown, to "make a list of everything that was missing."

"It turned out that there was quite a bit of stuff that was unaccounted for, which only verifies that there needs to be some kind of accountability down there," Langford told investigators, according to a transcript of his April 1992 interview.

Brown - whose inventory was limited to specimens logged into the lab during 1991 - detailed his findings in a two-page memo to Langford in which he lamented the loss of the items "due to their immediate and future value to the pathology division and USAMRIID."

An analysis by Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York investigating the recent anthrax attacks for the Federation of American Scientists, has been widely reported. It concludes that the culprit is probably a government insider, possibly someone from Fort Detrick.

The Army facility manufactured anthrax before biological weapons were banned in 1969, and it has experimented with the Ames strain for defensive research since the early 1980s.

Vander-Linden said one of the two sets of anthrax specimens listed as missing at Fort Detrick was the Vollum strain, which was used in the early days of the U.S. biological weapons program.

Jack Dolan and Dave Altimari write for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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