Thousands of Uncounted Disease Samples Found at Army Biodefense Lab

(Jun. 18) -A scientist analyzes potentially hazardous samples at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. The facility found thousands of unrecorded disease agent vials during a recent inventory (U.S. Army photo).
(Jun. 18) -A scientist analyzes potentially hazardous samples at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. The facility found thousands of unrecorded disease agent vials during a recent inventory (U.S. Army photo).

WASHINGTON -- A recently completed inventory at a major U.S. Army biodefense facility found nearly 10,000 more vials of potentially lethal pathogens than were known to be stored at the site (see GSN, April 23).

The 9,220 samples -- which included the bacterial agents that cause plague, anthrax and tularemia; Venezuelan, Eastern and Western equine encephalitis viruses; Rift valley fever virus; Junin virus; Ebola virus; and botulinum neurotoxins -- were found during a four-month inventory at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., according to Col. Mark Kortepeter, the center's deputy commander.

Kortepeter said yesterday it was "extremely unlikely" that any samples were smuggled out of the center's laboratories, noting that there are "multiple layers of security" that include random exit inspections and a personnel reliability program.

"I can't 100 percent say nothing [left the facility] but I think the bottom line [is] we did have a lot of buffers to prevent anyone who shouldn't be in the laboratory from getting in in the first place and then preventing them taking something out with them," he said.

Most of the samples found were so small -- less than one milliliter-- that any amount of pathogen would thaw quickly and die once removed from a freezer, according to inventory control officer Sam Edwin.

The institute's commander ordered the latest accounting after a USAMRIID researcher in January discovered four vials of Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus -- considered a possible tool in bioterrorism -- that were not listed in the center's database, Kortepeter said during a conference call with reporters.

A newly minted Army requirement mandates that any identified "overage" result in a "Category One Serious Incident Report." That order was handed down in January by the Army, USAMRIID spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden told Global Security Newswire. Previously, such incidents only required the overage be entered into the database, without any additional reporting, according to Kortepeter.

The institute has been under scrutiny since the Justice Department's 2008 assertion that a former USAMRIID researcher was responsible for the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people. The prime suspect, microbiologist Bruce Ivins, committed suicide last July as federal prosecutors prepared charges against him.

Federal investigators traced the anthrax strain in the mailings to a supply developed at the laboratory. Ivins stored his own sample of the agent in a refrigerator that he alone used.

"Nine thousand, two hundred undocumented samples is an extraordinarily serious breach," Richard Ebright, a professor at Rutgers University who follows biosecurity, told the Washington Post. "A small number would be a concern; 9,200 ... at an institution that has been the focus of intense scrutiny on this issue, that's deeply worrisome. Unacceptable."

The number of unrecorded vials is "not too surprising" given the physical size of the site at Fort Detrick and the number of select agents -- pathogens or biological toxins declared to pose a severe threat to human or animal health -- studied by its researchers, Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a senior associate at the University of Pittsburg'hs Center for Biosecurity, told GSN. "It is not a security risk, but an organizational problem" at USAMRIID, she said.

Gronvall served on a Defense Science Board task force that examined the security of select agents at Defense Department laboratories and found the institute had better security than most. She noted the report criticized the site's record-keeping process.

She said the most significant contributions the inventory made is to detail what disease agents are in the catalog and who has access to those materials.

The inventory lasted from Feb. 4 to May 27. In all, 230 people, about one-third of the center's work force, searched roughly 335 refrigerators and freezers, including 100 freezers that contain select agents. The Army suspended most of the laboratory's biological research studies while the catalog process was under way.

About half of the newfound material was destroyed after being recorded, Edwin told reporters. The other half was deemed worthy for further scientific use, cataloged, and stored in the center's containment freezers, he said.

Kortepeter said the "vast majority" of the unrecorded samples were "working stock" that had accumulated over the decades by researchers who retired or left the institute.

"If they were not being actively worked on it's very possible they were basically in the back of a freezer," he said.

A typical freezer at the center has 25 cubic feet of storage space, with six compartments, and can contain about 30,000 one milliliter vials, according to Edwin. The center also uses 17-cubic-feet freezers and a few walk-in freezers. He said the recently identified materials could also be stored -- with space left over -- in one 25 cubic foot freezer.

The samples might not have been in active use when the center's original database -- dubbed the Agent Inventory Management System -- was established in 2005, Kortepeter said.

While 9,220 might "sound like a lot ... 13 percent wouldn't be unusual for the numbers of investigators that have left over" the center's 40-year lifespan, said Col. Terry Besch, the site's research support chief.

Previously, departing scientists turned over their logbooks to their successors, but records were sometimes incomplete, she said. The knowledge of what was in the center's freezers was lost as the work force turned over. The comprehensive database now ensures that each sample is tracked until it is destroyed or transferred, Besch said.

In the future, Edwin said, USAMRIID researchers will conduct an annual audit of the center's disease material.

In addition, whenever researchers use an agent in the inventory they must place a "comment" in a laboratory notebook on when they took the sample and how the material is to be used, he said. Records must be kept on how much material is used, and any remaining must be returned and logged in the catalog.

The center's Biosurety Office will conduct quarterly audit of those notebooks, according to Edwin.

Kortepeter predicted the newly implemented annual inventories would take less time than the recent accounting because "we're comfortable the database is sound now." Future audits would not be as "logistically intense," he added.

June 18, 2009
About

WASHINGTON -- A recently completed inventory at a major U.S. Army biodefense facility found nearly 10,000 more vials of potentially lethal pathogens than were known to be stored at the site (see GSN, April 23).