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Suicide of Anthrax Scientist Raises Questions

1 August 2008 (All day)
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One of the greatest criminal mysteries of the decade has taken a dramatic new turn with the suicide last Tuesday of Bruce Ivins, an anthrax researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. According to news reports, federal prosecutors were preparing to file charges against Ivins, 62, for plotting the anthrax letter attacks which killed five people and sickened 17 others in October and November 2001.

Biodefense researchers were pondering today whether there might be a backlash to their field if the worst bioterror crime in U.S. history was indeed committed by a scientist who had spent a career developing countermeasures against anthrax. But the fact that Ivins won't face trial also raised the uncomfortable specter that the full truth about the case may never come out. "We may never know for sure whether he did it or not," says virologist Thomas Geisbert, a former USAMRIID researcher now at Boston University. Ivins's lawyer, Paul Kemp of Rockville, Maryland, issued a statement quoted by The New York Times declaring his client innocent and alleging that mounting pressure from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had "led to his untimely death."

According to the Los Angeles Times, which broke the story this morning, Ivins committed suicide by taking an overdose of painkillers. Ivins had worked at USAMRIID for 18 years, focusing primarily on anthrax. Most of his published work was on anthrax vaccines. Ivins produced and used anthrax spores of the Ames strain, the type used in the letter attacks, to infect animals.

In a statement issued this afternoon, the FBI did not mention Ivins's name but said it would reveal more information about the case after victims' families had been informed. The bureau said that "substantial progress" has been made in the case, thanks in part to "new and sophisticated scientific tools"--but it didn't give specifics.

The FBI has been under immense pressure from politicians and the public to find the perpetrators of the 2001 attacks, and some are worried that Ivins's death may provide a premature opportunity to declare the case solved. In a statement today, Alan Pearson of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C., called on the bureau to continue its investigation. "The need for a thorough investigation and a full accounting to the American people remains." Ivins's inability to defend himself makes it even more important that scientists be able to pore over the complete scientific evidence, says R. John Collier, an anthrax researcher at Harvard University. "I would love to see what they have," Collier says.

Just this summer, the government agreed to pay $4.6 million to Steven Hatfill, a biodefense researcher whose life was turned upside down in 2002 after then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called him a "person of interest" in the anthrax attacks. Geisbert wonders whether Ivins's death was the result of "another Hatfill situation, and was he just unable to handle the pressure."

The death--and presumed involvement in the anthrax letters--puts the biodefense research community in a tight spot, says Gerald Epstein, a biosecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "From the very beginning, there has been speculation that the attacks were carried out by a biodefense zealot who wanted to prove that bioterrorism was a serious problem," says Epstein. If true, that could give the public the impression that "biodefense research is a giant fraud," he says. "It would be unfortunate if the message people take away from this is that the only individuals we should be concerned about are deranged biodefense scientists."

Geisbert worries that Ivins's potential involvement will give new ammunition to local groups that have tried to stop the wave of new biosafety labs. In Boston, "we have had a lot of opposition--and this is not going to help," he says. Still, Geisbert points out, none of the anthrax victims lived in or near USAMRIID, and there's no reason to believe local residents are at greater risk when a biodefense researcher becomes a bioterrorist himself.

Jonathan Tucker, a specialist on biological weapons control, says the incident is bound to evoke new concerns about "insider threats" at government and university labs. Officials may be compelled to further scrutinize researchers who work with select agents, Tucker says, adding that some questions have already been raised about "the adequacy of the screening process" used by the FBI to determine if a scientist should be allowed to work with a dangerous pathogen.

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