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Army to complete Fort Detrick Lab probe

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 had not. 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 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.

Hernandez and Tyson note that 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.