- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lethal microbes and toxins stored at the Army’s main biological weapons defense laboratory in Maryland were not accounted for in the main computer database, leading the lab to suspend research until all samples are logged, Army officials said Monday.

There was no immediate indication that any materials had been removed from the site, although government reports have questioned security at the facility.

The Army took the step when it could not account for inventory in its possession before 2005, when the laboratory began using a computerized database.

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“In many cases, these would be samples used by an investigator who no longer works here, but the material remains in the lab freezer,” said Caree Vander Linden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick. “People need to know that we take this seriously and we want to be accountable for everything that we have. If this is a way to improve our inventory then we need to do it.”

Ms. Vander Linden said the samples included “viruses, bacteria and other pathogens that are studied” at the lab. The facility is a Biosafety Level 4 institute, with the capability to store some of the deadliest viruses and bacteria, including smallpox, Ebola, plague and anthrax.

The institute, which began operations shortly after WWII, studies biological agents that might be a threat to military but would also menace civilian populations, Ms. Vander Linden said.

She downplayed concerns that the samples might have been stolen or otherwise left the site.

“We have multiple layers of physical security in place and lots of safeguards,” she said. “This is more of an effort to make sure we got accountability for everything on site. What we are doing now is going back to that previously used material to see if we need to retain it for scientific purposes and if so, we will enter it into the database. If not, we will destroy it according to standard operating procedures.”

A government accountability report in October revealed inadequate security systems at several Biosafety Level 4 facilities. Critics have questioned the level of oversight of these facilities, which include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Homeland Security. There is no single organization in charge and security is left up to the individual laboratories or agencies.

In 2001, Fort Detrick’s Level 4 lab came under scrutiny when it became apparent that an anthrax attack that led to the deaths of five people was an inside job by a laboratory worker. Bruce Ivins, a former employee of the lab, committed suicide in July when he learned he was being charged for mailing letters containing anthrax.

Army officials said the institute will continue “critical ongoing animal research and animal care” while suspending other research until the inventory is completed.

“The inventory could take several weeks as we are basically establishing a new baseline for our inventory [which previously may not have captured all the historical samples in our possession],” a statement from the institute said.

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