Army to complete Fort Detrick Lab probe

Published 23 April 2009

For a year now, U.S. Army investigators have been trying to find out what happened to three vials of Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus that were unaccounted for at Fort Derrick bio research lab; as they are about to complete the probe, investigators say that there were no signs of criminal misconduct found yet

This is not the kind of news you want to wake up to: “deadly pathogens at Fort Detrick’s infectious disease laboratory in Frederick, Maryland, are missing.” There is some assurance, though: U.S. Army investigators are close to completing a probe into the disappearance of these pathogens, have found no evidence yet of criminal misconduct, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command said yesterday.

The Washington Post’s Nelson Hernandez and Ann Scott Tyson write that 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. Hernandez and Tyson write that the quantity of the missing virus sample is small, but 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