Army Biodefense Lab Shuts Down to Check If Anything Is Missing

By Eliza Strickland | February 10, 2009 5:48 pm

anthraxThe biodefense lab that was associated with the anthrax mailings of 2001 is temporarily shutting down most research to allow officials to make a thorough accounting of every germ, virus, and poison that’s being stored at the facility. The lab, at Fort Detrick in Maryland, has come under intense scrutiny since the FBI accused researcher Bruce Ivins of sending the 2001 letters laced with anthrax. (Ivins killed himself while under investigation.) Now, officials want to comb through storage rooms and refrigerators to ensure that every dangerous agent is listed in the lab’s inventory. The suspension started Friday, and the tedious process of counting thousands of vials could take up to three months, institute spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden said [AP].

The order to stop most work came after a spot check last month found 20 samples of Venezuelan equine encephalitis in a box of vials instead of the 16 that had been listed in the institute’s database [Washington Post], officials say. “I believe that the probability that there are additional vials of BSAT [biological select agents and toxins] not captured in our … database is high,” Skvorak wrote in a memo to employees [ScienceInsider]. Researchers at the lab work with some of the most dangerous infectious diseases known, like anthrax and Ebola, but officials stressed that they do not know of any missing vials of lethal substances.

The lab could have lost track of some biological materials when it switched over to computerized record keeping in 2005, officials say. Counts could also have gone awry when researchers left the lab’s employment but their research materials weren’t reassigned to someone else. Such mundane errors in bookkeeping happen frequently in normal labs, but experts say they can’t be tolerated in a biodefense setting. The suspension will interrupt dozens of research projects at the institute, whose task is to develop vaccines, drugs and other measures to protect American troops from germ attacks and disease outbreaks. Ms. Vander Linden said some critical experiments involving animals — often used to test vaccines and drugs — would not be halted [The New York Times].

The suspension, which reportedly took researchers by surprise, has already caused some grumbling. Some lab workers have complained that the Army is trying to impose on biological research an inventory-control scheme developed for nuclear and chemical labs. They contend it’s a poor fit since a small amount of living material can be grown into a larger supply, making inventory reporting difficult and time-consuming. [Army spokesman Michael] Brady acknowledged the challenge but said, “We have to do something. At the end of the day, we have to figure out the best way forward” [AP].

Related Content:
80beats: Bioterror Attack Likely in the Next 5 Years, Congressional Report Says
80beats: FBI’s Anthrax Evidence Will Get Peer Reviewed
80beats: FBI Explains How Genetics Cracked the Anthrax Case
80beats: Army Researcher’s Alleged Anthrax Attack Raises Concerns Over Biodefense Labs
DISCOVER: Infectious Defense asks whether a determined bioterrorist can be stopped

Image: NIH/Paul Keim

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • kristal

    i think that the FBIcaused that man to kill himself. If they thought that there was something wrong than they should have done closed the placedown to see if anything is missing. I dont think that it was right that they needed to keep the investigation open and then wait till the man kills him self before they shut the place down to look and see if anything is missing from the place.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

80beats

80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »