Did Ivins Move the Refrigerator? New Cold Facts Cast Further Doubt on Amerithrax Conclusions

The top-notch Frontline/ProPublica/McClatchy group that has been continuing to investigate the anthrax attacks of 2001 and the subsequent Amerithrax investigation by the FBI posted some photos on Monday that they obtained through FOIA requests. They are here. Mouse over the first photo and then you can click through the slideshow. The most important photo is the one of the lyophilizer. The FBI is claiming Bruce Ivins used this to dry the spores used in the attacks. That is not two pieces of equipment in the photo; here’s a clearer shot of what looks like the same model available on the used market. The thing is huge! The problem is that it is NOT in Ivins’ “hot suite”, so using it in its place would have put spores all over the place in area where at least some of the personnel probably weren’t vaccinated (and thus would have died). This would have been an obvious contamination event Ivins could not have hidden. Technically, the lyophilizer is “mobile”, but as you can see, it’s the size of a refrigerator and it would have been obviously missing if Ivins wheeled it into the hot suite. Also, it uses 220V (see the wiring that obviously was put in so the lyophilizer could be used in this spot), so Ivins might not have had an outlet available in the hot lab. Also notice the piece of paper on the top part;  that’s most likely a sign-up sheet to reserve it since this thing is used for drying down large amounts of liquid and these runs take a number of hours. You can bet if Ivins had signed into the log during the critical period we would know about it. There is only one sheet there, though, so the sheet from the appropriate time period might not have survived until the time USAMRIID was being looked at carefully.

Here is the photo of the lyophilizer, slightly enlarged from the PBS website:

The caption supplied by the Frontline/ProPublica/McClatchy team reads:

The lyophilizer, or freeze dryer, which the FBI says Ivins could have used to make the attack anthrax. Stored outside of the secure BSL-3 hot suite, the lyophilizer was a central focus of the investigation; however, the FBI was never able to definitively link it to the attack anthrax, and some of Ivins’ colleagues are skeptical that he would have risked drying anthrax outside of the secure suite.

The FBI’s claim that this lyophilizer was used by Ivins came about in a very emabarrassing way for the Department of Justice. DOJ had submitted a document in the wrongful death suit filed by the widow of Robert Stevens, who was the first fatality in the attacks. The initial filing stated flatly that Bruce Ivins did not have access to the equipment needed to dry the anthrax spores used in the attacks. After the FBI went ballistic over that filing, a judge allowed DOJ to submit an amended document (see page 3) where DOJ referred to the “refrigerator sized” lyophilizer in the BSL-2 containment area, where DOJ also noted that no work with live anthrax was carried out.

For those of you who want more details on the science behind the reasoning that Ivins could not have used this lyophilizer in this spot to dry the spores used in the attack, keep reading after the jump. 

The image posted by the Frontline/ProPublica/McClatchy group is not sharp enough to enable identifying information on the lyophilizer to be read, but I believe that what we are seeing is virtually identical to this used lyophilizer I found for sale on an internet listing. The lyophilizer being offered for sale is described as a “Virtis 25EL Freeze Dryer with Virtis Unitop1000L Shelf Freez”. Although the lyophilizer looks like two pieces of equipment stacked on top of one another, it takes both pieces to make a functional laboratory device. The lower section is called the condenser and is the “25EL Freeze Dryer” portion. Some of the technical specifications for this portion of the device can be found here, where clicking on the “25EL” information shows that this piece of equipment can weigh between 280 and 495 pounds and requires a 220V power supply.

But note that the top half of the machine at the specifications link above differs from that in the FBI’s photo from USAMRIID. That is because lyophilizers can be configured in many different ways. See, for example, some of the many different manifolds that can be found as the top portion on some lyophilizers. The manifolds on the webpage at that link are more in line with what I expected to see as the top part of any lyophilizer that Ivins would have used to dry anthrax spores while working outside his containment lab.

Note especially that with some of these manifolds, scientists purchase portable torches that can be used to seal glass ampules in which material has been dried. These ampules would be dangling off the multi-port manifolds. This can be done while the ampules containing the dried powder are still under vacuum, thus cutting down on the amount of powder that would be released outside the instrument once the vacuum is released. Similarly, some of the manifolds have the ability to put stoppers into vials while the material remains under vacuum.

The unit at USAMRIID, however, appears to be a shelf dryer on the top half, where the material to be dried is placed into open pans that slide into the unit on shelves prior to drying. It is possible that the USAMRIID unit may only accept two shelves as opposed to the five shelf setup in the used unit I found on the internet listing, but it’s hard to conclude that the USAMRIID device is anything other than a shelf dryer based on the overall shape of the top portion of the lyophilizer when compared to the known shelf dryer. It is very hard to imagine how anthrax spores could be dried in a shelf dryer and then removed from the dryer without a lot of spores being released into the room in which the lyophilizer is located.

Note especially that the lyophilizer is not in Ivins’ “hot lab” which was maintained at Biological Safety Level 3 (BSL-3, see this CDC discussion (pdf) of the various biosafety levels for laboratories) but is in an area maintained at BSL-2. Procedures at USAMRIID required that all work with live anthrax be carried out at BSL-3, so it is likely that at least some of the personnel who could have come into contact with the lyophilizer did not routinely handle live anthrax and thus were not vaccinated. That means that Ivins would have had to be extremely diligent in decontaminating both the lyophilizer and the surrounding area to prevent an anthrax outbreak among his coworkers or visitors to the BSL-2 area.

It is routinely acknowledged that lyophilizers are at risk of spreading the material that has been dried in them. This guidance document (pdf) prepared for researchers at Columbia University has this to say about use of lyophilizers for infectious material:

Lyophilizers produce a dry solid that is very easily dispersed. They should be fitted with a HEPA filter or vented to a BSC when used for drying suspensions of infectious material. Disinfect chamber surfaces and any materiel collected in the vapor trap. Ampoules should be opened only in a BSC; place a disinfectant-moistened pad over the scored line when opening the ampoule.

It is undoubtedly this general knowledge that lyophilizers produce easily dispersed solids, combined with the fact that this particular lyophilizer is a shelf dryer rather than one on which ampules can be sealed (even though the Columbia document even refers to powder being dispersed from systems where ampules can be sealed), that led the workers at USAMRIID to doubt the FBI claim that this particular lyophilizer could have been used to produce the attack material.

It is possible that the lyophilizer pictured at USAMRIID has been connected to a HEPA filter as suggested in the Columbia document. Just to the left of the lyophilizer, above the hanging lab clothing, it is possible that the grey metal object about a foot tall on top of the black metal frame could be part of a HEPA air filtration unit. It is unlikely that this is a HEPA filter attached to a typical biological safety cabinet (BSC in the Columbia excerpt), as such cabinets are built so that workers sit in front of them in chairs that can roll up to the front edge of the cabinet. Note that the black metal frame here has a bar at floor level, so a chair could not be rolled up into working position. However, the shiny object on the top of the shelf dryer could well be a bit of aftermarket ductwork connecting the lyophilizer to a HEPA unit.

If the lyophilizer is connected to a HEPA unit, then that means it would have been impossible for Ivins to wheel the unit into his BSL-3 lab area. That means, in turn, that Ivins would have had to  thoroughly decontaminate both the condenser chamber area and the shelf dryer area of the lyophilizer after use. More importantly, some anthrax spores would have been trapped in the HEPA filter unit. These units are changed out every few years and it is possible spores would have survived on the HEPA unit, only to infect the poor worker who removed the old filter. Remember that this is in a BSL-2 area, so there would have been a presumption of no live anthrax, increasing the chance of infecting someone long after the anthrax was dried.

Another indication that if the lyophilizer were contaminated coworkers would have been at risk can be seen in the surroundings of the unit in its normal spot. What appear to be lab coats or other lab clothing are hanging to the left, there is a small trash can to the right and a box of supplies, most likely sterile disposable pipettes, from the look of the packages, sits on the “table top” extending from the condenser unit next to the shelf dryer.

One more thing stands out in looking at the photo of the lyophilizer at USAMRIID. Note that there is a single sheet of paper on the right side of the shelf dryer. Although this could have instructions for those less familiar with the operation of the lyophilizer, I think it is more likely to be a sign-up sheet for reserving use of the lyophilizer. When used with the large volumes of liquid that this particular lyophilizer is built to dry, each use of the device would be expected to require several hours. Scientists who share equipment like this use sign-up sheets as a matter of courtesy to let others know when they intend to monopolize the device for a long period. You can bet that if the FBI had a copy of a sign-up sheet on which Ivins reserved use of the lyophilizer during the time they accuse him of preparing the attack, that would have been used as a virtual “smoking gun”. However, the fact that only one sheet appears to be attached might also suggest that old logs were not kept, and so there might not have been records going back to the time at which the attack spores would have been prepared once the FBI got to the point of investigating USAMRIID.

At any rate, the bottom line is that this photo of the lyophilizer the FBI wants us to believe Bruce Ivins used defies all scientific sense. Although it is large enough (unlike the “speed-vac” they note as being present in his BSL-3 area) to handle the volume of liquid that would have been needed to be dried to produce the attack spores, it is configured in a way that would have virtually guaranteed that highly infectious spores would have been spread in a work area where live anthrax is not handled. As such, this contamination likely would have caused an anthrax outbreak in unvaccinated coworkers or visitors. Alternatively, if the device remained portable, it also defies logic that no workers would have recalled the lyophilizer being missing for the extended period Ivins would have needed to dry down the spores and then decontaminate the device after using it in his very small BSL-3 space.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
14 replies
  1. blueskybigstar says:

    It should also be noted that they prosecuted an innocent man for around a year’s time who handed their asses to them in court. The day after they lost in court, they pointed to a dead man and said that he did it. Mr. Ivins was likely a victim of having a psychologist who was deep undercover who corroborated the suicide story. The FBI said that they had long been on Ivins’ tail and when they went in to make the arrest, he killed himself. This does not make sense. Why would they bother prosecuting a guy for a year if they had suspected Ivins of being the person behind the anthrax? That would make them guilty of prosecuting a case that they knew led to someone else, false prosecution. Then there was Jerome Hauer, who “coincidentally” was the first guy to be interviewed on CNN after the towers collapsed knowing enough information to have prevented the attacks, who warned the White House a week before to start taking Cipro, the only effective antibiotic against anthrax. Our justice system and military are vipers dens that infest this country.

  2. Jim White says:

    @Casual Observer: Well, it’s been untenable for me for a long time.

    I think that the best leverage that could be used would be for some elected representative on a committee overseeing DOJ pushing hard on the decision to investigate the attacks only from the point of view of a “lone wolf” actor. Any theories involving more than one person in the attacks were discarded before the investigation really got underway and that seems to have doomed it. So far though, nobody has chosen to question DOJ along those lines.

  3. Casual Observer says:

    @Jim White: Even though I think I’ve read all your previous work on this, it has been a while. It would take some work, but perhaps it may be time for a summary work on where we now stand with the investigation in terms of its credibility (easy for me to say…).

  4. klynn says:

    @Jim White:

    Leahy? Did he not, at one time, ask for a greater investigation?

    Perhaps he needs to be interviewed after being presented a summary of the investigation mistakes and misstatements and be asked about a reinvestigation? His response would be telling.

  5. PeasantParty says:

    I knew it!

    Jim, loads of thanks for writing this up and sharing. I still think that the Cheney White hoser ordered the CIA to do this in order to scare the hell out of those few congress members that were holding out on the Patriot Act.

    These continual requests on our investigative systems, especially the FBI, and CIA have caused more damage than just loss of lives. There is no longer a reason to protect the history of this. Besides, if Ivins did try to use that lab equipment there would continue to be traces of the spores for years to come!

  6. rugger9 says:

    I agree with Peasant on this one, and it also explains the increasingly threadbare attempts to pin this on anyone other than Darth.

    Even when they run out of excuses, Darth’s defense team can simply point to the two previous prosecution attempts and question just how sure the government could be. Note also that there may be some burrowed PNAC sympathizers with access to cause trouble like this again. Don’t put anything past the GOP and Darth in particular.

  7. rugger9 says:

    One other thing to note about access: if Ivins really used this unit for live anthrax in an area not cleared for it, he would have had to lie about the cultures [putting everyone at risk, and I haven’t seen any evidence he hated his colleagues to that level] or he would have to very thoroughly decon the unit, which would have its own consequences [i.e. “Why the BSC-3 bunny suit, Bruce, in a BSC-2 area? Did you burn the popcorn or something?”] . Failure to cover the tracks means evidence, and as noted in the post there doesn’t appear to be any stray spores. It is possible that the unit could be moved to a similar HEPA mating system in the hot lab, but there would also have been records of the decon needed after use to make it safe for the BSC-2 area where it now resides. Those won’t be tossed for any reason, due to the liability, and the USG report doesn’t mention such records.

  8. bmaz says:

    @blueskybigstar: Uh, nobody was prosecuted as you describe. The individual you are referring to is Steven Hatfill, and while he was identified as the principle “person of interest”, i.e. suspect, in the case, he was never formally arrested or charged.

  9. Jim White says:

    Hmmm. From Dawn in Pakistan:

    Police on Wednesday said that they were investigating how and why a parcel containing anthrax was sent to the prime minister’s official residence in the capital Islamabad last month.

    It appeared to be the first reported case of anthrax sent to a government office in Pakistan.

    “The parcel containing anthrax powder was sent last month, about 20 days ago. After the laboratory test confirmed that the parcel contained anthrax we registered a case against unknown people,” said police officer Hakim Khan.

    Cynics might wonder whether the military/ISI borrowed a tactic from the PATRIOT Act days in Washington to get cooperation from the citizens in the government. I haven’t seen any reports of people in Gilani’s office actually being infected, though, so on first glance it would seem this anthrax was not weaponized. At any rate, this will obviously bear further watching.

  10. Jim White says:

    @Jim White: Hmm. October. Mansoor Ijaz wrote his first column at Financial Times that set the military and ISI against the civilian part of the government on October 10. Very interesting timing there.

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