The anthrax scare at the Pentagon this week exposed gaps between the military's procedures in handling biohazards and those of the rest of the federal government, which could increase the threat to public health in the event of an actual contamination, health experts and federal and Virginia officials said yesterday.
Health officials inside government and out said the Pentagon's reliance on detection and response systems that are isolated from those at other federal agencies delayed Virginia health officials, the U.S. Postal Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in moving to protect the public from a possible biohazard in the mail.
Transcript: Fairfax's Gerald E. Connolly (D) discussed coordination between government officials.
Events Leading to Anthrax Alert
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Negative Results But Very Real Fears (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
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"The takeaway for me is, the government hasn't learned too many lessons from the last few years," said Scott J. Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. "The Department of Defense appears to be developing their own detection systems. . . . The linkages to public health just didn't seem to be there. Clearly, things broke down."
In the muddle, local hazardous materials teams were confused by sensor equipment that differed from equipment used by the Postal Service and Department of Homeland Security, said Robert B. Stroube, Virginia's health commissioner.
State and federal officials responsible for deciding public health actions said scientists had trouble interpreting the findings from a Pentagon contract lab, which is not part of the CDC's national network of labs that respond to bioterror.
Yesterday, the top elected officeholders in Fairfax County and the District, along with members of Congress, called for a summit to discuss the federal response. They said they were kept out of the loop during Monday's anthrax scare at the Pentagon and a subsequent biohazard alarm at a Defense Department office complex in the Baileys Crossroads section of Fairfax.
Now that anthrax tests have come back negative and the buildings are beginning to reopen, several officials also are concerned about the differing testing guidelines.
Since the 2001 anthrax attacks, the Postal Service has been spending $1.4 billion to install a biohazard detection system at 283 mail facilities; the federal government has spent $370 million to boost state and local public health labs, the backbone of the CDC's 140 bioterror Laboratory Response Network; and Homeland Security has launched a $60 million-plus BioWatch system to monitor air in more than 30 U.S. cities. All rely on the same CDC protocols.
But the Defense Department has not signed a federal memorandum of understanding that standardizes alerts, terminology, data sharing and response when biohazard systems at military sites in the United States are triggered, a senior federal health official said. The Pentagon is spending $1 billion on a five-year program to develop biohazard warning systems and procedures at 185 U.S. and 15 overseas bases.
"Why are they using a private facility to do environmental testing when we have invested billions of dollars to enhance public health and defense facilities to deal with 21st-century public health threats?" said George W. Foresman, homeland security adviser to Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).
The BioWatch system has gone two years without a false positive. The Postal Service's system has reviewed 500,000 samples without a false positive.
Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood defended the department's actions while acknowledging that "we're looking at all those issues."
"The contractor laboratory has worked well. We have protocols in place. . . . Until we get all the information, I could not go beyond that," Flood said.
The Postal Service reopened its main government mail processing center at V Street NE at noon yesterday and advised about 200 employees that they could stop taking antibiotics. Last night, Pentagon officials awaited more lab results from the Pentagon's Remote Delivery Facility and the Baileys Crossroads office complex.
The Pentagon expected to reopen its intake facility today. The Fairfax buildings will reopen today except for a suite in one of the towers, where more testing will be done, Homeland Security officials said.
The events began last Thursday when one of four swab samples taken daily from sensor filters at the Pentagon delivery facility tested positive for anthrax at Commonwealth Biotechnologies Inc. in Richmond, a Pentagon subcontractor. The finding was confirmed by a highly accurate polymerase chain reaction test and forwarded Friday to the prime contractor, said Robert B. Harris, president of the Richmond lab.
Pentagon officials say they were notified Monday morning of the finding. That afternoon -- apparently by coincidence, military officials said -- a machine on the eighth floor of the Fairfax complex that receives mail from the Pentagon sounded an airborne biohazard alarm.
Military officials said that although Army scientists at Fort Detrick confirmed the initial positive finding, quality control problems at the lab probably spoiled the sample.
"We stand by our results, and the work is ongoing," said Harris, whose company has processed 2,000 samples from the Pentagon over two years. "To say the way the release was made was premature, unfortunate and unwarranted is an understatement."
A federal health official familiar with Pentagon operations said its lab practices vary from those of civilian agencies, complicating the interpretation of scientific data.
Staff writers Allan Lengel and Josh White contributed to this report.