By Nelson Hernandez and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Army investigators are close to closing a probe into the disappearance of deadly pathogens at Fort Detrick's infectious disease laboratory in Frederick and have found no evidence yet of criminal misconduct, the Army's Criminal Investigation Command said yesterday.
The investigation of the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is "in the final stages of its mandatory review process before being closed," said Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the criminal investigation division. The command "has found no evidence to date of any criminality related to the unaccounted-for items," he said.
Since last year, investigators have been trying to discover what happened to three small vials of Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus that were unaccounted for, according to Caree Vander Linden, the spokeswoman for the lab.
Although the quantity of the missing virus sample is small, the investigation shows how seriously military authorities take a possible security breach at the Army lab, which is responsible for developing countermeasures to such potential biological agents as anthrax and Ebola. The investigation was first reported yesterday in the Frederick News-Post.
The virus that causes Venezuelan equine encephalitis is mosquito borne and usually causes a mild flulike illness but can also cause brain inflammation and death. It has potential for use as a biological weapon but is far less lethal than some other agents the lab works with.
Vander Linden said that when one scientist left the institute several years ago, he handed down his materials to another scientist, who left three years later. Last year, a successor took an inventory of the samples and found three vials missing, triggering an investigation, she said. The vials were probably missing because a freezer in which they were kept failed, destroying the batch, she said.
Vander Linden declined to name the scientists involved.
"We'll probably never know exactly what happened," an Army official said. "It could be the freezer malfunction. It could be they never existed." Although one lead scientist has responsibility for a stock of biological material, many lab workers on that scientist's staff might have access to it, so Army investigators have talked to "literally hundreds of people" but have apparently found no "criminality involved," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Alan Schmaljohn, a longtime scientist at the lab who is now a professor at the University of Maryland, said he had been questioned two or three months ago as someone who once had access to the virus.
"They caught me on my cellphone on the road, and I stopped and talked to them for quite a long time," Schmaljohn said in an interview. "She was just going down this whole list of questions, including, 'Did you take it?' "
Schmaljohn said he hadn't. He said the quantity of missing material was relatively small and easy to lose, especially if one of the freezers fails, requiring the vials to be rearranged.
"The number of vials is utterly meaningless," Schmaljohn said. "Three vials missing is no indication of any evildoing. . . . It's almost equivalent to saying you're missing 3 cents out of the national budget. . . . From the scientist's point of view it is inconsequential, but from the regulator's point of view it is an indication of sloppiness, and they are finally going to take rugged action."
The Fort Detrick lab has been under heavy pressure to tighten security since the 2001 anthrax attacks, which killed five people and sickened 17 others. FBI investigators say they believe 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 amid an investigation into his activities.
The stricter security measures imposed since the anthrax attacks have been challenged by some scientists, who say they slow down research and are ineffective.
The new rules force scientists to keep closer tabs on the quantity of biological materials, but keeping an inventory is harder than keeping track of nuclear or chemical materials because viruses and bacteria are constantly replicating and dying.
In February, a separate problem accounting for Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus triggered the suspension of most research at the lab. A spot check in January found 20 samples of the virus in a box of vials instead of the 16 listed in the institute's database, Vander Linden said.
Most work was stopped until the institute could take an inventory of its entire stock of viruses and bacteria. She said that the inventory was almost complete and that some labs that finished their checks have resumed research. The official said the pathogens are used for medical research, not weapons research.