The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious
) has suspended research
activities involving biological select agents and toxins. Army
officials took the step on Friday after discovering apparent problems
with the system of accounting for high-risk microbes and biomaterials
at the Fort Detrick, Maryland, facility.
The lab has been under intense scrutiny since August, when the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) named
USAMRIID researcher Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax
letter attacks. Although the case never went to trial because of Ivins's
suicide on 29 July 2008, FBI officials have claimed
the evidence against him is indisputable and that he carried out the
mailings using anthrax stolen from a flask at USAMRIID.
Officials have begun a complete inventory of all select agents and
toxins at the facility. All experiments using select agents will remain
suspended until the accounting is finished, which could take several
weeks. Several USAMRIID researchers have been grumbling about the
decision, which seems to have caught them by surprise, according to a
government official not connected to the lab.
The decision was announced by institute commander Col. John Skvorak
in a 4 February memo to employees. The memo, which ScienceInsider has
obtained, says the standard of accountability that USAMRIID had been
applying to its select agents and toxins was not in line with the
standard required by the Army and the Department of Defense. USAMRIID
officials believed that a satisfactory accounting involved finding all
the items listed on its database; the Army and DOD wanted the converse—that is, all select agents and toxins needed to be matched to the
According to the memo, any materials found without a corresponding
record in the database must be reported to the Vice Chief of Staff of
the Army. "I believe that the probability that there are additional
vials of BSAT [biological select agents and toxins] not captured in
database is high," Skvorak wrote.
A former USAMRIID scientist told ScienceInsider that in the past,
inventorying of biological materials at the institute routinely turned
up items that had not been listed on the database before. Those items
would be added to the database without shutting down research.