2nd Leak Of Anthrax Found at Army Lab
Delay in Reporting Release Is Criticized
By Rick Weiss and David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 24, 2002; Page B01
For the second
time this month, Army officials have found evidence of an accidental
release of anthrax spores in an Army biodefense research building in
Frederick, this one involving a different and relatively benign strain
of the microbe.
The Army emphasized yesterday that no
military researchers had fallen ill from the apparent lapses, and it
offered reassurance that the public was not at risk. But an Army
official also acknowledged that the discovery, which a university
anthrax researcher yesterday called "highly embarrassing," indicated a
failure to follow safety protocols at the high-security lab.
The Army's handling of the problem also drew criticism from political
leaders and the director of a company that does laundry for the lab,
who said the Army did a poor job of communicating with the firm after
it appeared that the biowarfare bacteria might have spread to the
The two new contamination spots were
found in Fort Detrick's Building 1425 during testing conducted last
weekend, officials said. That testing, involving more than 800 swabs,
had been initiated Friday after potentially deadly anthrax spores were
found to have escaped from a sealed lab and spread to other areas
inside the building.
The newly discovered spores, whose
precise location in the building was not revealed, belong to a strain
that is used in vaccine research and is not capable of causing anthrax,
said Charles F. Dasey, spokesman for the U.S. Army Medical Research
Institute of Infectious Diseases, which operates the complex at Detrick.
The previous accidental release, first suspected April 8 after
researchers found an apparent spill and confirmed by the Army on
Friday, involved a strain that has not been identified but definitely
is not the harmless vaccine strain, Dasey said. The spores were found
in a locker room and adjacent hallway.
Hugh-Jones, an anthrax researcher at Louisiana State University who
used to work at Detrick, said the twin breachings of biological
security were "highly embarrassing" and evidence of a lack of
leadership there. "It looks like somebody made a mess, they tried to
clean it up, they didn't tell anyone and they left."
Tara O'Toole, director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for
Civilian Biodefense Studies, said that assessment was too harsh. Only
four tests out of nearly 1,000 have come up positive, she noted. "That
actually speaks to the excellence of their efforts."
Army is investigating how the releases occurred but had no explanation
yesterday. But Dasey acknowledged "a break in established laboratory
Scientists working in the biosafety level-3
lab, which is designed for experiments on deadly microbes, must leave
lab clothing and booties behind in special refuse containers before
leaving the lab. They exit directly into a shower area, where they are
required to wash before entering less secure areas of the building.
The two discoveries of spores suggest that someone did not follow those
procedures and tracked the microbes into unprotected areas, Dasey said.
The first discovery in the locker room and adjacent hallway opened the
possibility that contaminated towels may have been shipped to the
laundry, where the spores could have hitched rides to other locations.
Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty criticized Detrick officials
yesterday for not telling the city that spores might have spread off
the Detrick compound.
"The concern here goes beyond the gates of Fort Detrick," Dougherty said.
Army officials informed the mayor of the building's problems about noon
Friday, a few hours before telling the news media, Dasey said. But they
did not alert city officials of the possibility that spores might have
spread to Jeanne Bussard Center Inc., a nonprofit company that employs
disabled people and does laundry for Fort Detrick.
Moreover, though the Army told the firm's executive director Friday that
it would test laundry employees for exposure, it did not make clear
that it would test the physical plant as well. When the executive
director was unable to reach the Army on Saturday to confirm those
intentions, she grew frustrated and scared and hired a private company
to test the facility immediately.
Detrick officials, who
say they had been trying unsuccessfully to reach the director, had the
facility tested later that day and found no traces of anthrax. But by
then, the town was abuzz with talk that the Jeanne Bussard Center might
have been contaminated by anthrax.
Del. Sue Hecht
(D-Frederick) said she heard rumors about contamination at the facility
while walking in downtown Frederick on Saturday afternoon. She called
Dougherty, who called city and county officials. None of the local
officials knew that off-site workers had been tested, Hecht said.
"We realized that nobody knew about this," Hecht said. ". . . The good
news is that everything was fine. The bad news is that there was a
serious lack of communication and lack of process."
yesterday, about 35 people, including seven off-base laundry workers,
had their noses swabbed for evidence of exposure, Dasey said. Only one
of those people -- one of the two scientists who discovered the first
spill -- has tested positive for exposure. That scientist had
previously been vaccinated against anthrax but is now on antibiotics as
The building is undergoing its second
decontamination effort in four days in an effort to wipe out the newly
discovered spores and also to make a second stab at killing all the
spores from the first spill. Follow-up testing yesterday revealed that
a few spores had survived the first decontamination effort.
Col. Edward Eitzen, commander of the Medical Research Institute of
Infectious Diseases, said yesterday that the laboratory "probably ought
to institute a policy of routine sampling for pathogenic organisms in
noncontainment areas," Eitzen said.
2002 The Washington Post Company
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