Trouble in the air at Fort Detrick

Latest biodefense facility adds risky element to already high-risk environment

February 28, 2011|By Kenneth King

Frederick residents have had plenty of reminders lately why they should be concerned about the biodefense facilities in their midst: an ongoing cancer cluster investigation related to past groundwater contamination, an Agent Orange protest, and headlines about the 2001 anthrax attacks — which the FBI still insists were perpetrated by a researcher at Fort Detrick's U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).

Little wonder, then, if Frederick residents are troubled about the latest risky biodefense facility at Fort Detrick: a 460,000-square-foot Medical Countermeasures and Test Facility, which, it appears, will aerosolize large numbers of monkeys with bioweapons agents.

The facility joins three other huge, new biosafety level 4 facilities (studying diseases for which there is no effective cure or treatment, and required the highest level of precautions) already being constructed at Fort Detrick by the Army, National Institutes of Health, and Department of Homeland Security — an ongoing explosion that occurred even as the FBI was identifying Detrick as the source of anthrax spores used against Americans in 2001.

Frederick residents weren't even told about the latest scary facility until last year — enough in itself to raise suspicions. Now they are being "aerosolized" themselves with a deceptive propaganda barrage.

Members of a new community advisory group recently raised concerns about the facility's "creating an offensive capability to test a defensive measure." According to the Frederick News-Post, USAMRIID researcher Lisa Hensley "denounced the notion that weapons are being developed at USAMRIID."

Biodefense promoters are fond of semantic games denying that their germs should be called "bioweapons agents." But developing dangerous new germ variants — such as antibiotic-resistant versions of anthrax, tularemia, and brucella — is a staple of U.S. biodefense research.

Ms. Hensley declared that "USAMRIID does not have a constant supply of aerosolized diseases but rather creates what they need just before an experiment takes place." Well, the aerosols may be evanescent, but the germs themselves have a long life in deliberately infected animals and accidentally infected researchers, in ongoing experiments to produce and otherwise monkey around with the agents, and in the facility's storage areas.

Even without deliberately floating its germs in the air, USAMRIID has had trouble keeping track of them. In 2009, it discovered 9,200-plus vials (one-eighth of its stock) weren't logged into inventory. In 2003, while cleaning up a leaking Detrick chemical dump, employees found 100-plus vials of buried live bacteria. "The documentation for where this came from doesn't exist," Detrick's safety director at the time, Lt. Col. Donald Archibald, stammered.

There have been multiple instances since 2001 of Detrick anthrax ending up at places it wasn't supposed to be — inside the facility and (according to the FBI) outside as well, in the U.S. Postal Service.

In 2009, after safety lapses exposed a USAMRIID researcher to tularemia, two weeks passed before anyone suspected her illness was tularemia, the focus of her research. At Boston University in 2004, and at Texas A&M in 2006, months elapsed before infected researchers were correctly diagnosed. Sick biodefense researchers seem rarely to suspect the diseases they're researching.

Lab-acquired infections are a particular concern now that researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere have brought the 1918 flu back to life, and developed deadly bird flus that transmit easily between humans.

Such recklessness makes laughable USAMRIID Commander John Skvorak's declaration that USAMRIID is "tightly regulated" by the Army and CDC. The Government Accountability Office's chief technologist testified in 2007 that the country's now 1,300-plus "high-containment" germ labs were essentially regulating themselves. Little has changed since then.

According to the Dallas Morning News, CDC inspections missed or ignored a veritable biosafety train wreck at Texas A&M until a public expose by a small nonprofit forced the CDC to suspend the university's select agent research and investigate further. The red-faced agency ultimately issued a 21-page report on A&M's safety lapses.

CDC administrators ignored warnings of their own engineers about the backup power configuration for the CDC's new suite of BSL-4 labs, causing a complete power loss and loss of negative air pressure in 2007. A second power loss occurred in occupied CDC labs that same year.

The CDC didn't even require that research developing new bird flus — probably the most dangerous germ research in the country — be conducted at the highest level of containment.

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