Fort Detrick Biowarfare Lab Leak in 2019

24 Nov 2019
The Frederick News-Post, Md. | By Heather Mongilio
The Army’s premier biological laboratory on Fort Detrick reported two breaches of containment earlier this year, leading to the Centers for Disease and Control halting its high-level research.

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases announced Friday that it would restart its operations on a limited scale.

As it works to regain full operational status, more details about the events leading to the shutdown are emerging.

An inspection findings report, obtained by the News-Post through a Freedom of Information Act request, details some of the observations found during CDC inspections as well as by USAMRIID employees who reported the issues.

The two breaches reported by USAMRIID to the CDC demonstrated a failure of the Army laboratory to “implement and maintain containment procedures sufficient to contain select agents or toxins” that were made by operations in biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories, according to the report. Biosafety level 3 and 4 are the highest levels of containment, requiring special protective equipment, air flow and standard operating procedures.

Due to redactions to protect against notification of the release of an agent under the Federal Select Agent Program, it is unclear the result of the two breaches.

Breach is a “loaded word,” said Col. E. Darrin Cox, commander of USAMRIID. While there was a breach, there was no exposure, he said. No one was exposed to any of the agents or toxins.

Anytime USAMRIID determines there is a breakdown of requirements, employees have to do a report, Cox said.

When the breaches were reported, USAMRIID’s commander at the time issued a cease and desist to all work being done at the laboratory so that personnel could do a safety pause. It was a voluntary stop, Cox, who was not commander then, said.

The CDC inspected USAMRIID in June, as part of standard regulations that include scheduled and unscheduled visits, according to previous News-Post reporting. The CDC sent a letter of concern on July 12, followed by a cease and desist letter July 15.

Shortly after, USAMRIID’s registration with the Federal Select Agent Program, which regulates select agents and toxins, such as Ebola or the bacteria causing the plague, was suspended. At the time, USAMRIID was conducting work with Ebola and the agents known to cause Tularemia, the plague and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.

What Went Wrong

The CDC, in its inspection findings, noted six departures from the federal regulations for handling select agents and toxins. One of those departures was the two breaches….

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Letter to the Editor

Concern about return to full operations at USAMRIID

Given the serious lapse in containment in May 2018, which led to potentially serious environmental contamination that has not been independently assessed, continuing high-containment laboratory operations at Fort Detrick pose an unaddressed risk to Frederick residents.

The Frederick Containment Laboratory Community Advisory Committee believes that the chemical decontamination methods used for wastewater from USAMRIID laboratories were probably sufficient to ensure that there is little risk of illness among Frederick residents or Fort Detrick staff.

However, without access to their environmental sampling and monitoring data we cannot independently conclude that there is no risk to the community. Even after follow-up requests from both our mayor and county executive in February, Colonel Nunnally and the Army have continued to be nontransparent about their environmental monitoring data and assessment process.

Perhaps more important are serious lapses in communication between the Fort Detrick garrison command and USAMRIID leading up to the overflow of the Steam Sterilization Plant. These resulted in a situation where the base knew it was operating the plant with multiple failed wastewater pumps for several months before the catastrophic failure of the waste containment system in May 2018.

There is no evidence that the poor management of water sterilization facilities has been corrected. So, resumed full operations at USAMRIID likely pose similar risks as those faced by our community in 2018. In the absence of responsible actions by Fort Detrick and USAMRIID leadership, our community should be concerned about the return to full operations.

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