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Fort Detrick disease samples may be missing
Originally published April 22, 2009
By Justin M. Palk
Army criminal investigators are looking into the possibility that disease samples are missing from biolabs at Fort Detrick.
As first reported in today's edition of The Frederick News-Post by columnist Katherine Heerbrandt, the investigators are from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division unit at Fort Meade.
Chad Jones, spokesman for Fort Meade, said CID is investigating the possibility of missing virus samples from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
He said the only other detail he could provide is that the investigation is ongoing.
Fort Detrick does not have its own CID office, Jones said, which is why Fort Meade's CID was brought in.
Jones said he could not comment on when the investigation started.
CID is responsible for investigating crimes where the Army is, or may be, a party of interest, according to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command website.
USAMRIID is the Army's top biodefense lab, where researchers study pathogens including Ebola, anthrax and plague.
In February, USAMRIID halted all its research into these and other diseases, known as "select agents" following the discovery of virus samples that weren't listed in its inventory.
The institute's commander, Col. John Skvorak, ordered research halted while workers conducted a complete inventory of the institute's select agents.
That inventory is nearly completed, though the exact end date isn't known yet, said Caree Vander Linden, USAMRIID spokeswoman.
Vander Linden said she didn't know about the CID investigation and referred questions to the CID's head public affairs office.
There is no indication whether the CID investigation is connected to USAMRIID's re-inventorying of its select agent stocks.
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Originally published April 22, 2009
The Criminal Investigation Division at Fort Meade has been investigating USAMRIID at Fort Detrick since at least early February. Meade's CID pursues investigations of serious crimes and sensitive subjects of concern to the Army at regional bases like Detrick, which has no internal investigative arm.
A News-Post story in February reported that USAMRIID was shutting down most of its bioresearch while it tried to match its inventory to its records, citing an "overage" of BSAT, biological select agents and toxins.
Meade's CID, however, isn't concerned with overstock. Instead, agents are looking for what may have gone missing between 1987 and 2008.
"It's possible there are some viral samples missing," at USAMRIID, Fort Meade public affairs officer Chad Jones confirmed in a phone interview Monday.
"I don't know anything else. The investigation is ongoing," he said.
The investigation into possible missing pathogens began about the same time Col. John P. Skvorak issued a "stand down" memo halting research operations until an updated inventory is complete. The memo made no mention of missing samples.
A retired support staff employee who worked in the BSL-4 labs received a visit from Fort Mead's CID agents in February. Agents wanted to know if he'd taken anything out of the lab between 1987 and 2008, and how easy it was for others to remove samples.
"I said it was easy enough. It was a lock and key access to the suite of freezers," the retiree said in an interview.
In that time period, thousands could've accessed the freezers of deadly and/or infectious viral samples, he told investigators. Specifically, the man reported, CID asked about samples of VEE, Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis. According to the Centers for Disease Control, VEE is spread to humans by mosquitoes; symptoms range from mild flu-like illness to brain inflammation, coma and death. Mortality rate is one-third, "making it one of the most deadly mosquito-borne diseases in the United States."
Another support staff member in the BSL-3 labs left the job a few years ago. In February, he received a message on his answering machine instructing him to call one of two numbers about missing VEE. The phone numbers connected him to Meade's CID.
Perhaps we could find solace in the fact that the Army is trying to impose order on the process after more than 20 years, tracking missing viruses and adding others to its database.
Aside from the obvious -- the possibility that deadly viruses may be floating around out there unsecured -- two events, however, preclude us from taking one iota of comfort in this scenario: 1) the construction of a greatly expanded biolabs, which means more germs, more people, more risk; and 2) the government's own admission that the 2001 anthrax murders were an inside job.
Asked whether he supports an expansion of biolabs at USAMRIID, the former BSL-3 worker said "No."
"Not knowing what I know now. With that many people there, things get sloppy."
A belief that inventory controls, stricter protocols and psychological screenings will protect the public from USAMRIID's dangerous pathogens is na?ve. Even Detrick scientists were reportedly upset at the new controls, according to a Feb. 10 AP story, because they don't suit USAMRIID's operations.
Why? Because germ samples can be easily multiplied in the lab and it's difficult to track them.
Now that's comforting.
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