Just seven months after the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people, the U.S. Army laboratory in Maryland where the accused killer, microbiologist Bruce E. Ivins, worked was described in a government report as a “rat’s nest” that was contaminated with anthrax bacteria. The highly redacted report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, said suite B-3 in Building 1425 at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick not only was contaminated with anthrax in three locations but the bacteria had escaped from secure areas in the building to those that were unprotected.
Written by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, the report said that while the Fort Detrick facility where the FBI said Mr. Ivins spent an inordinate amount of time alone and at night had comprehensive procedures that would protect a “great number of personnel from exposure” if implemented, there was no requirement for routine surveillance to check for contamination inside or outside the containment laboratories.
The 361-page report said that safety procedures at the facility and in individual laboratories were lax and inadequately documented; that safety supervision sometimes was carried out by junior personnel with inadequate training or survey instruments; and that exposures of dangerous bacteria at the lab, including anthrax, had not been adequately reported.
During an inspection of the Fort Detrick lab where Mr. Ivins worked as a microbiologist and vaccinologist for 36 years and senior biodefense researcher for the past 18 years, investigators found substantial crowding; numerous instances of unlabeled or improperly labeled chemical bottles; inappropriate storage of chemicals; benchtop clutter; dirt and debris on the floor; supplies and equipment left in cluttered biosafety cabinets; and improperly handled biohazard waste.
Army investigators, according to the report, said the scientists in B-3, known at Fort Detrick as Team Anthrax, were “generally kind of sloppy.”
They said one supervisor, whose name was redacted, had ordered his people to wear gloves “since I can’t be sure the lab isn’t contaminated.” Another supervisor, identified in the report only as the “chief of the special pathogens branch in one of five branches within the diagnostic systems division,” had sent several letters to B-3 for analysis and when a final report was returned, he regarded it as “reflecting contamination in the laboratory.”
“At this time, I went to B-3. It was like a rat’s nest. The countertops were dirty, the floor was dirty and the area was disorganized,” the supervisor is quoted as saying. “At that time, I made a decision not to process any more samples in B-3.”
Officials at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command did not return calls for comment on the report.
Mr. Ivins, 62, committed suicide July 29 after being identified by the FBI as the target of impending charges in the anthrax probe that could have resulted in the death penalty. Although he had assisted the bureau in analyzing the anthrax-tainted envelopes sent to Capitol Hill, the FBI said Mr. Ivins possessed purified anthrax spores identical to the bacteria that killed the five, sickened 17 others and alarmed the nation in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 attacks by al Qaeda terrorists.
It was advanced DNA testing by the FBI from samples taken from Mr. Ivins lab of highly purified anthrax spores with “certain genetic mutations identical” to those used in the attacks that led investigators to the conclusion that he was their man.
Anthrax-laced letters sent to Capitol Hill and elsewhere killed Florida photo editor Robert Stevens, 63; U.S. postal workers Thomas Lee Morris, 55, and Joseph P. Curseen, 47, both of whom worked at the Brentwood facility in Northeast; Kathy Nyugen, a 61-year-old hospital stockroom employee in New York; and Ottilie W. Lundgren, a 94-year-old woman from Connecticut.
Mr. Ivins’ death precluded the FBI from presenting its case in court, but FBI Assistant Director Joseph Persichini, who heads the bureau’s Washington field office, said the Fort Detrick scientist “was responsible for the death, sickness and fear brought to our country by the 2001 anthrax mailings.”
Known as the “Amerithrax” investigation, Mr. Persichini called the FBI probe one of the largest and most complex ever conducted by law enforcement. He said the DNA testing allowed investigators to pinpoint the origins of the anthrax to Mr. Ivins’ lab.
The first concerns about a possible contamination at Fort Detrick surfaced in December 2001, when “positive cultures” for the anthrax bacteria were found outside the biocontainment area of Building 1425, the report said.
According to the report, a microbiologist in the building, whose name was redacted, identified the cultures and decontaminated the area, although he did so “on his own initiative and without the direction of any supervisors.” It said the microbiologist also did not notify any supervisors of his actions or of the contamination.