Army lab find 9,220 uncatalogued vials of Ebola, anthrax, and plague

Published 23 June 2009

U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland finds 9,220 unregistered vials of Ebola, anthrax, plague, and other pathogens

With three days left in spring cleaning season, a U.S. army lab that works on the world’s deadliest pathogens has turned up uncatalogued vials of Ebola, anthrax, plague, and other pathogens — 9,220 of them to be precise. The laboratory is the same one where anthrax researcher Bruce Ivins worked before he committed suicide last year. The U.S. government suspects Ivins was behind the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people, and studies showed that the anthrax used in the attack was “directly related” to the batch stored at the lab.

Ewen Callaway writes that the discovery of the uncatalogued vials raises questions about whether anyone would notice if some of the lab’s pathogens went missing. “A small number would be a concern; 9,200 … at an institution that has been the focus of intense scrutiny on this issue, that’s deeply worrisome. Unacceptable,” Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, told the Washington Post.

Officials at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland, made news of their find in a press conference last Wednesday. Most research has been on hold at the laboratory after an inspection at the beginning of the year turned up twenty vials of Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus in a box that was supposed to contain sixteen. This prompted the laboratory’s most recent fit of spring cleaning, during which officials spent four months scouring freezers to compare their contents with a database of about 66,000 vials documented as of February.

In the future, the laboratory will take stock of its stocks once a year, so “it’s really less likely that we will be in a situation like this again”, said Sam Edwin, an inventory control officer at the institute.