Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"select agent" inventory control problems

Propublica | The U.S. Army has suspended research with deadly agents and toxins at the military's top germ warfare lab, which came under intense scrutiny after the FBI identified it as the source of the anthrax used in the 2001 "Amerithrax" attacks that killed five, injured 17 and kept the nation on knife-edge for weeks.

The suspension, announced internally last week at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), was attributed to concerns about whether the facility had an accurate inventory of all the deadly "select agents [1]" in its freezers and refrigerators. Select agents are the most dangerous and tightly regulated biological substances used in research, including anthrax, Yersinia pestis (plague) and the Ebola and Marburg viruses.

The FBI last year contended that Bruce Ivins, who worked on anthrax vaccines at USAMRIID's labs in Ft. Detrick, Md., engineered the 2001 attacks. Ivins, who had become emotionally troubled, committed suicide before the government could try to prove its theory in court.

As we reported in a three-part series in December [2], many WMD experts are worried that the $20 billion the federal government has spent on bio-defense research in the past seven years might actually have put the nation at even greater risk of a bioterrorism attack because the spending has spawned a proliferation of labs and scientists working with "select agents." [1]

Last week's suspension of much of the germ-warfare research at the military's top bio-defense laboratory is just the latest in safety problems at bio-defense facilities [3] around the country attributed to lax security.