Most Research Suspended at Fort Detrick

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The U.S. Army's Frederick-based laboratory for studying some of the world's deadliest diseases has suspended most research activities as it tries to find errors in an inventory of its biological materials, a spokeswoman for the institute said yesterday.

Col. John P. Skvorak, the head of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, ordered most lab work to stop last Friday, according to an order first obtained and posted on the ScienceInsider blog. He said the order was required to meet the Army and Defense Department's standards for keeping track of "biological select agents and toxins," known as BSAT, such as anthrax bacteria and the Ebola virus.

The lab has been under heavy pressure to tighten security since the 2001 anthrax attacks, which killed five people and sickened 17 others. FBI investigators think the anthrax strain used in the attacks originated at the Army lab, and its prime suspect in the investigation, Bruce E. Ivins, researched anthrax there. Ivins committed suicide last year.

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, according to Caree Vander Linden, the spokeswoman for the institute.

The lab has made inventory mistakes before, "probably due to accounting errors, transcription errors, or BSAT that had not been reassigned when an employee left the Institute," Skvorak wrote in the memo. "I believe that the probability that there are additional vials of BSAT not captured in our . . . database is high."

One common reason for mistaken tallies of biological materials was that researchers would leave samples behind when they took other jobs, said a scientist who works at the institute who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of lab security.

"They want those freezers cleared out and to find anything that's unaccounted for," the researcher said. "We would find stuff that had been left there by investigators who had departed the institute five years or even longer ago. It was difficult to backtrack what those samples are."

Vander Linden said the search could take months.

"It's going to be labor intensive," she said. "We've estimated up to three months. That's a ballpark, but we'll see. We've got to do it right. We've got to be accurate. We're not going to try to speed it up and miss anything."

The scientist, as well as others no longer at the lab, said the order could frustrate researchers because keeping inventories for biological materials is next to impossible. Unlike nuclear weapons materials, which can simply be weighed, viruses and bacteria are constantly multiplying and dying, meaning the amount of material changes from hour to hour, they said.

"It's extremely difficult to completely account for replicating agents because, by definition, they replicate," said Thomas W. Geisbert, associate director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories at Boston University, who previously worked on Ebola at the Army lab. "You can make a large amount from a small amount."

"That certainly is an issue," Vander Linden said. "At the end of the day, people realize this is the cost of doing business now. We have to be accountable, and we'll have to do it."

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