When the Pentagon needs to handle the deadliest biowarfare threats, it turns to the labs of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Maryland. It's the only place in the American military complex equipped to handle the worst of the worst diseases -- those that have no cure and can are transmissible by air. Which makes it extremely unnerving, that the place had to suspend biodefense research on Friday, "after discovering apparent problems with the system of accounting for high-risk microbes and biomaterials."
That's the scoop from the new ScienceInsider blog, which notes that "the lab has been under intense scrutiny since August, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation named former USAMRIID researcher Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks."
The concern this time is that the lab may not be accurately tracking the use and storage of all of its biological organisms in an internal government database -- leaving the door open to misplacement, mishandling, or worse. According to an internal memo obtained by ScienceInsider, "any materials found without a corresponding record in the database must be reported to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army."
"I believe that the probability that there are additional vials of BSAT [biological select agents and toxins] not captured in our … database is high," institute commander Col. John Skvorak wrote.
This is not a good thing. After all the hullabaloo surrounding the Ivins case, it's a little surprising to find Army researchers reluctant to toe the line on biosecurity issues. It's not clear right now whether the issue is new regulations that need to be fine-tuned -- or scientists not worried enough about prudent security regulations. Whatever the case, we ought to expect the Army's premiere Army biodefense research lab to be leading the private and academic institutions in sound security practices. Over the past year or so, the Army has been leading the development of regulations to better safeguard its research facilities. Ironically, now that the regs are completed, it's USAMRIID itself that still needs work on tightening up its shop.
UPDATE: Rutgers University molecular biologist Richard Ebright wonders how many more biodefense labs are having problems tracking and handling deadly agents. In an e-mail to Danger Room, he notes:
- There currently are 400 U.S. institutions and 15,000 U.S. individuals authorized to possess bioweapons agents.
- Security measures at the overwhelming majority of the 400 U.S. institutions that possess bioweapons agents are inadequate.
- Very few of the 400 institutions has comprehensive video monitoring of work areas.
- Very few of the 400 institutions has a two-person rule (a rule requiring that at least two persons be present when bioweapons agents are handled).
- Very few of the 400 institutions perform psychological screening and psychological monitoring of personnel.
Ebright adds, "There is an urgent need to reduce sharply the number of institutions with access to bioweapons agents and to implement effective security at institutions with access to bioweapons agents."
Shortly after the FBI closed the Amerithrax Investigation, members in Congress started to ask a very important question.
Has the unprecedented boom in biodefense research made the country less secure by multiplying the places and people with access to dangerous germs?In the last 8 years, we have seen more money and more researchers getting access to these dangerous biological agents all against the county.
I believe everyone will agree that research is required, but without proper security measures for all of these facilities, like those outlined by Mr. Ebright, we are very likely increasing our overall risk.....