The 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].
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Image: NIH/Paul Keim