Expert warns of anthrax repeat without security improvements
America is at risk of repeating the Army’s anthrax debacle unless laboratories make “smart improvements” in biosecurity and biosafety, the former head of the Army’s leading biothreat research agency says.
Last year, the Army mistakenly shipped live anthrax spores to more than 100 U.S. and foreign labs from its Dugway Proving Ground Life Sciences Division in Utah.
An Army investigation released last month concluded that more centralized oversight was needed at Dugway, which produces anthrax for research purposes, as well as for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., the Army’s main institution for researching defenses against biological warfare.
The shipments “did not pose a risk to public health,” the report said.
However, Dr. Gerald W. Parker, a retired Army colonel who once commanded the institute, told a House subcommittee Wednesday that the U.S. had in essence dodged a bullet from a gun that will fire again.
America’s civilian and military laboratories “have made mistakes and, if left uncorrected, will contribute to the nation’s biological risk,” and the security breach at Dugway “illustrates this point,” said Parker, who is an ex-officio member of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, a bipartisan group that issued recommendations last fall for dealing with emerging chemical and biological threats.
The Army lab’s technicians believed they were sending out anthrax spores that had been inactivated and posed no threat.
“As it turns out, there is an incomplete scientific understanding of the inactivation process,” Parker said. “There are no standardized protocols for inactivation, and the checks that Dugway had in place were insufficient.
“[We] must assume that without continued focus on smart improvements in biosecurity and biosafety, this will happen again somewhere in the nation’s laboratory network with a worse outcome,” he said.
The Army’s investigation recommended the appointment of an “executive agent” to oversee Dugway, suggesting the Army’s surgeon general for that role.
A far greater and impending biological threat, however, comes from terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq, which are “making concrete plans for the use of these weapons,” Kenneth L. Wainstein, a member of the blue ribbon panel, told the House subcommittee.
“Specific intelligence indicates that they’re actively trying to recruit scientific experts; they’re seeking control of labs; they’re making concrete plans for the use of the weapons,” said Wainstein, a former Homeland Security adviser under President George W. Bush.
“We believe it’s not a matter of if, but rather when and how soon a biological attack will be launched on our nation, our people or our allies,” he said.
The fundamental question is whether the U.S. is equipped and prepared to handle such a threat, Wainstein said. “Sadly, our panel found that the answer to that question is no.”
Despite a wake-up call in fall 2001 when anthrax spores were used in terrorist attacks in Florida, New York and Washington, D.C., the U.S. has “failed to develop the coordinated and comprehensive biodefense that’s necessary to meet and defeat this threat,” he said.