Boy, That Anthrax Attack Sure Led to an Expansion of Our Anthrax Program, Huh

From Scott Shane’s article on USAMRIID’s little cataloging problem:

The anthrax case has underscored the threat of biological attack by biodefense insiders like Dr. Ivins, who have access to pathogens and the expertise to work with them.

The number of such researchers has grown rapidly since 2001, when the anthrax letters set off a spending boom on biodefense that led to a rapid addition of laboratories working on potential bioweapons, notably anthrax.

Before 2001, only a few dozen such facilities worked with anthrax. Today, the Centers for Disease Control has registered 219 laboratories to do so, said a C.D.C. spokesman, Von Roebuck. He said 10,474 people had been cleared to work with dangerous pathogens and toxins nationwide after background checks by the Justice Department. [my emphasis]

So we’ve learned two things in the last day. USAMRIID has not had a way of tracking what all its scientists have been working on (and therefore, any claim that Ivins could have been the only one who had access to the anthrax used in the attack is based on faulty evidence). And, as a result of the anthrax attacks, the number of labs working on anthrax expanded almost ten-fold, from roughly 24 to 219.

I guess they found a really effective way to quiet concerns that our work on anthrax violated treaty bans, huh?

18 replies
  1. JimWhite says:

    I keep going back to that Judy Miller article. I find it very interesting that it could be read to describe a competition between DoD and the CIA before the “intelligence battles” over Iraq that would be waged just a few months later. It especially notes that DoD was going rogue during the Clinton administration on the biowarfare front:

    The Pentagon’s project to build a germ factory was not reported to the White House, they said. President Clinton, who developed an intense interest in germ weapons, was never briefed on the programs under way or contemplated, the officials said.

    I’m still convinced that Cheney left a moderately intact “Team B” in DoD who carried out this and who knows what other projects under deep cover in the department. Note how quickly they were able to go into full functionality in combating the CIA storyline on Iraq only a year later. I hope that Obama does some pretty complete fumigating in DoD quickly. There are a lot of vermin that need to be removed.

  2. phred says:

    This is actually not that much of a surprise. Scientists follow the money, they have to if they are paid out of research grants as everyone in a “soft money” job is. BushCo wanted anthrax research, they set up a pot of money to pay for it, and labs everywhere would try to get in on the action. Apparently, there was a lot of action.

    Doesn’t make a person to sanguine about how well controlled such toxic substances are though, eh?

    As for the treaty restrictions, uhh, do we have any evidence that Bush ever bothered with treaty obligations? It’s early, maybe I need more coffee, but I would say no.

  3. JohnnyTable70 says:

    Another Richard Jewell moment for the screw ups at the FBI. Ivins was fingered as the suspect because the FBI had no subject and they needed to close the case and hail the results as “another victory in the Global War on Terror” for the Bush Junta.

    If the number of labs handling anthrax increased — exponentially I might add – under Bush/Cheney and the number of individuals with access to said anthrax increased to more than 10K as you suggested, that means the FBI will catch the real culprit right around the time that we have developed warp engines which I predict will between the 23th and 24th Centuries.

  4. selise says:

    i don’t understand why all the focus on anthrax. as a matter of public health it just doesn’t seem like such a big deal. now, before i get any lectures about how it really is a big deal, all i’m trying to do is put it into context. there are a lot of much, much worse pathogens. which is why anthrax only requires a bsl-3 lab as, iirc, ivins worked in. take a look at what’s in a bsl-4 lab. and then look at the explosion of bsl-4 labs built or planned since 911, including in major metropolitan areas. for example, see BU in boston. i’ll try to find some real data to post on this.

  5. behindthefall says:

    And what kinds of lyophilizers do these new labs have? When they make a spore prep, what does that prep look like? (I know, I know: one track mind.)

  6. Leen says:

    This article about the anthrax attacks made my head spin

    The “suicides” of Ivins and Kelly are odd to say the least
    “In 1989, Kelly was involved in investigations into the Soviet violations of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and was a key member of the inspection team visiting the former USSR on several occasions between 1991 and 1994. His experience with biological weapons at Porton Down led to his selection as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq following the end of the Gulf War. Kelly’s work as a member of the UNSCOM team led him to visit Iraq thirty-seven times and his success in uncovering Iraq’s biological weapons programme caused Rolf Ekéus to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.[2] He was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1996. Although never a member of the intelligence services, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) regularly sought out his opinion on Iraq and other issues. David Kelly became a member of the Bahá’í Faith around the year 1999.

  7. selise says:

    sorry i don’t have time to do more than drop some congressional hearing links, but the hammond testimony is particularly good, if dated (maybe there is something more recent?) on the explosion of bsl-4 labs.

    Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: The Silent Proliferation of Bio-Laboratories in the United States
    Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
    Thursday, October 4, 2007……BSL.shtml…..timony.pdf

    Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: Government Plans to Move Exotic Disease Research to the Mainland United States
    Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
    Thursday, May 22, 2008…

  8. Stormcrow says:

    Why is anyone being surprised by this?

    The USAMRIID facility at Fort Detrick has a history of security incidents (yeah, including unaccountably missing samples just about every pathogen in the book) that goes back 20 years.

    This is public record.

    And anybody who has read C. J. Peters’ autobiography knows that quite a few of the scientists who have worked there are right out of civilian biomedical facilities, and will likely return to same later in their careers. Peters was quite frank about the Army’s attitude when he was brought on board: they were hiring doctors, not soldiers, and they bloody well knew it.

    What that means is that security is going to suffer. Badly.

    What’s happening now is a good thing, because you simply cannot run a lab where organisms like smallpox and hemorrhagic fevers are stored and studied the way you do a BSL2 university lab.

    It also has implications for ALL the BSL3 facilities that were built during the Great Security Pork Barrel just after 9/11. There was an explosion in the numbers of BSL3 facilities in place or planned in this country during W’s presidency, with no thought whatsoever given to site security. Or even to matters so mundane as the inevitable lab accidents and their consequences.

    Nice thing, this cleanup. Not before time.

    Now, we should start thinking of either imposing the same sort of regimen on all the other BSL3 sites, or closing them.

  9. drational says:

    Just a few thoughts on the post:
    Part of the issue may be registration changes. Prior to USA Patriot act in 2001, individual researchers were not required to register select agents such as toxins.
    There are now lists of hundreds of agents that if you have in your lab you must register with the Government.

    Work on Anthrax does not violate treaties. Weaponizing it does.

    It takes labs working with anthrax to develop the tools to treat anthrax exposure.

    Bad policies, kooks, and the google make our citizenry more susceptible to anthrax exposure than ever.

    None of these things excuse poor security in labs with anthrax.

    I think that it is not wise to be unprepared for badness. Anthrax is not the worst of the bad things by far, and bioweapons accessible to sophisticated individuals are never, ever going away.

    • Stormcrow says:

      Bingo, drational @ 11.

      There have been lab accidents in BSL3/4 labs, both in this country and in the USSR/Russia, since gods only know when. Some of them have been grotesquely fatal. Even when they did not involve research proscribed by the 1972 BWC.

      Anthrax worries me considerably less than agents more contagious.

      But when people can screw up with anthrax, which they are afraid of, they can make far worse mistakes with far more prosaic pathogens that can do far more serious damage before the infection chain peters out.

      When you study things like this, you have to be bloody careful. People who let samples of this sort of stuff go walking out of the lab aren’t being careful.

  10. pdaly says:

    The explosive growth in biolabs seems to mirror the explosive growth of contractors for the NSA that were were discussing with Mr. Bamford.

    Seems like the extra facilities and personnel would making monitoring that much more difficult. A bug or a feature?

    The level 4 biolab research building sited in the middle of Boston has always struck me as ludricrous. Such a location leaves very little time to stop an error in progress (whether purposeful or accidental)from spreading into the city. If a biolab were out in the dessert, there’d be time to stop an errant researcher from reaching a dense population and time to spot and stop uninvited guests from approaching too closely.

    • selise says:

      The level 4 biolab research building sited in the middle of Boston has always struck me as ludricrous.

      it is not ludicrous, it is fucking insane. and an animal lab also – which makes control far more difficult. but there is a lot of money in the militarization of niaid research. and with nih funding down, some people see it as a good thing.

      • pdaly says:

        selise, I think your description of the BU BioSafety Level 4 lab is more apt than my “ludicrous” even with the extra R!

        I read reports at the time it was proposed that the biolab which would work with anthrax, Ebola, and smallpox among other deadly pathogens would border Interstate 93 (any escaping microbes and infected animals could hitch a ride to points north (Canada anyone?) and all states to the south), that the lab was 2 miles from Logan airport and also in the flight path of daily traffic helicopters, and the lab would be 1 block from an elementary school. An MIT article from 2004 estimates population density of 50,000 people within a 1 mile radius of the lab.

        Some good news: According to this 2008 article there appears to be a legal challenge providing a delay in the opening of the lab.…..e_delayed/

        And as of October 2008 (thanks to the FBI’s questionable story about unstable Ivins at Ft Detrick) it was still delayed…..ety_steps/

        I’ll keep searching for new news.

        • selise says:

          again – i don’t think anthrax is in the same class as ebola. anthrax is not contagious. ebola is. and ebola is not in the same class as smallpox – if anyone in the world is doing research with smallpox, i don’t think there are words to describe how insane that would be.

  11. pdaly says:

    One interesting tidbit from Boston University’s website about the BioSafety lab:

    The seven story, 192,000 square foot building was designed by CUH2A of Princeton, New Jersey, and construction was managed by the national firms of Turner Construction Company and McCarthy Construction.

    “Princeton, NJ” linked to pathogens yet again.

  12. pdaly says:

    and found this explanation for the acronym CUH2A at the Free Dictionary by Farlex:

    Collins Uhl Hoisington Anderson Azmy (founding partners of Princeton, NJ architecture engineering & planning firm [CUH2A]

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