The Army’s biological weapons defense laboratory at Fort Detrick probably had multiple episodes of anthrax contamination as workers strove to process a flood of samples sent there for testing in 2001 and 2002, an internal report says.
The report contains previously undisclosed details about the sometimes sloppy practices that allowed anthrax spores to escape from biosafety containment labs at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. No one was hurt by the released spores.
Security measures were tightened after the Army acknowledged one of the accidental releases in April 2002. No other breaches of containment – the confirmed presence of agents where they should not be – have since been reported.
The 361-page report, a copy of which was obtained by the Frederick News-Post, was compiled by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, which oversees the research institute.
The report shows that evidence of anthrax spores in supposedly clean areas began appearing months before the April 8, 2002, breach as the institute processed tens of thousands of items and environmental samples, including the anthrax-laced letters mailed to Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont in the fall of 2001.
In December 2001, an institute technician told Dr. Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist, that she might have been exposed to anthrax spores when handling an anthrax-laced letter, the report says. It said Ivins tested the technician’s desk area and found growth that had the earmarks of anthrax. He decontaminated her desk, computer, keypad and monitor but did not notify his superiors.
Ivins later told Army investigators he did the unauthorized testing because he was concerned that the powdered anthrax in the letters might not be adequately contained.
He said he again became suspicious of contamination April 8, 2002, when two researchers reported potential exposures after noticing that flasks they were working with had leaked anthrax, causing crusting on the outside of the glass. Ivins reported the concerns to institute officials, who then found spores on nasal swabs from one scientist involved in the incident. The scientist had been vaccinated and did not contract the disease.