Fort Detrick lab needs tighter oversight, Army investigator finds

By SYLVIA CARIGNAN | The Frederick News-Post, Md. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 16, 2016

A key facility on Fort Detrick is one of three Army laboratories that should have tighter and more centralized oversight, an Army general is recommending after an investigation into a Utah military lab that inadvertently shipped live anthrax specimens last year to labs all over the world.

Maj. Gen. Paul Ostrowski and his investigative team released a report Friday calling for more centralized oversight of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick and the related Dugway Proving Ground Life Sciences Division in Utah, which is the facility that produces anthrax for research purposes. Dugway supports the work at Detrick involved in developing countermeasures to protect U.S. troops from biological threats.

The third lab, the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, is on the Aberdeen Proving Ground in northeastern Maryland.

Potentially live anthrax spores, instead of inactivated anthrax, were mistakenly shipped last year from Dugway to 194 labs around the world, including labs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The Army report ultimately found, however, that the Dugway shipments “did not pose a risk to public health.”

To “reduce the risk of further mishaps involving biological material,” Ostrowski’s report recommends more oversight of Army labs that handle biological select agents and toxins such as anthrax.

Biological select agents and toxins are those that under a federal definition “have the potential to pose a severe threat to both human and animal health, to plant health, or to animal and plant products.”

The report specifically states that Dugway, USAMRIID and Edgewood should have an “executive agent” conducting oversight for the labs.

Additional oversight would “ensure effective resource allocation and information sharing amongst the laboratories,” the report states.

According to the report, the Army’s surgeon general would take on that oversight role. A spokesman for the Army was unable to provide further details.

The report also stated that the frequency and scope of inspections at the labs are insufficient and that before the announced inspections take place, researchers tend to cut back operations on the most dangerous agents.

Kim Loll, vice chairman of Frederick’s Containment Lab Community Advisory Committee, said an oversight or advisory structure for all biocontainment work above a certain containment level — whether in a Department of Defense lab, National Institutes of Health lab or otherwise — may be necessary.

“From my perspective, the current structure is too segmented,” he said in an email.

Beth Willis, of Frederick Citizens for Bio-Lab Safety, said the Dugway investigation reveals the need for a coherent, independent system of oversight for labs.

“Revelations in recent years about [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] oversight lapses and limitations point to the need for a truly independent oversight system, one with the authority and will to take action if it is needed,” Willis said in an email.

In 2014, dozens of employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were accidentally potentially exposed to live anthrax bacteria.

The White House asked infectious disease researchers, including those at two Fort Detrick labs, to review their biosafety and biosecurity protocols after the potential exposure in Atlanta.

Though the Army placed a moratorium on shipping biological select agents and toxins after the Dugway incident, USAMRIID obtained a waiver and has been able to continue some of that research.

As for other changes at USAMRIID resulting from the report’s findings, USAMRIID spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden said those remain to be seen.


©2016 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.)

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Under a high magnification of 12,483X, this scanning electron micrograph depicted spores from the Sterne strain of anthrax bacteria.


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