Army lab fights coronavirus and its own demons

Fort Detrick facility got shut down last year over safety lapses, and most of its Pentagon funding has been frozen

The exterior of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which has maintained stores of weapons-grade anthrax at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, is shown in this undated photo. (USAMRIID/Getty Images)
The exterior of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which has maintained stores of weapons-grade anthrax at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, is shown in this undated photo. (USAMRIID/Getty Images)
Posted March 26, 2020 at 6:01am

The Army’s Fort Detrick, home to a leading biological research facility, has gained newfound attention because the Trump administration has tapped the lab to help develop a vaccine, treatments and testing equipment for the novel coronavirus. 

But the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID (pronounced you-SAM-rid), is under a cloud.

Some of its work was shut down last year over safety lapses, and those projects are only slowly restarting. Meanwhile, most of its Pentagon funding has been frozen because of what the Defense Department acquisition chief Ellen Lord, in a Feb. 29 letter to lawmakers, called “potential financial mismanagement."

On March 17, in a sign of USAMRIID’s growing prominence, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper visited the facility, about 50 miles northwest of the nation’s capital. 

Esper told reporters afterward that he was confident the scientists he met with are among the world’s best equipped to take on the coronavirus.

“If anybody knows how to do it, they know how to do it,” Esper said. 

[House orders Pentagon to say if it weaponized ticks and released them]

‘Systematic’ safety failures

But Esper did not mention that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees the portion of the lab’s work that involves the world’s most dangerous biological agents, shut those projects down last summer. 

The CDC inspection findings, obtained by the Frederick News-Post and published by the paper in redacted form in November, said the lab had “systematically failed to ensure implementation of biosafety and containment procedures commensurate with the risks” of working with pathogens like Ebola, smallpox and plague.

Fort Detrick is still stinging from earlier disclosures of safety lapses, shortfalls that were mirrored to some extent at other military research labs. 

The problems at USAMRIID have included anthrax escaping in 2001 from secure areas and then, in 2008, the FBI’s allegation that Bruce Ivins, one of the lab’s scientists, was the chief suspect in the mailing of anthrax samples to famous Americans in 2001. Five people were killed by those letters, and Ivins later committed suicide.

Just this week, David Franz, a former deputy commander of the lab, co-wrote a piece about USAMRIID for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal titled “A Biosecurity Failure.” The article blamed the facility’s troubles on both mismanagement and its being treated as a “backwater” by the Pentagon.

Nonetheless, the Fort Detrick lab now has an opportunity to show that those problems are behind it as it takes on the world’s biggest crisis. 

Earlier this month, five Democratic members of Maryland’s congressional delegation met with Pentagon officials to discuss the funding freeze. 

“We urge the Department of Defense and the Army to continue working together to address outstanding concerns while ensuring that the critical work being done at the labs continues without further interruption,” said a statement at the time from Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Benjamin L. Cardin, as well as Reps. David Trone, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Jamie Raskin.

Another Democratic House member from Maryland, Anthony G. Brown, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has also actively engaged the Pentagon about the lab’s funding.

“What matters today is providing the resources needed to protect public health. That must be our priority,” Brown said in a statement.

Checkered history

The Army’s infectious diseases lab traces its roots back to the 1950s. Its focus has long been on finding countermeasures against biological weapons, from the Soviet Union’s to those Iraq was once feared to possess. 

Until 1969, the lab’s mission also included experimenting on offensive biological weapons. And some allege the facility was involved in CIA efforts to find mind-control drugs.

The Army lab has had many successes, including helping advance vaccines for the Zika and Ebola viruses and treatments for anthrax and plague. 

Last summer’s CDC inspection report, though, found a host of problems. In one documented violation, a researcher had propped open a door to a room that was supposed to remain sealed. The door was opened while “a large amount of biohazardous waste” was being moved, potentially exposing unprotected personnel in a nearby area.

What’s more, the CDC report said, inventories of pathogens were not completed. Rooms that were supposed to be sealed had cracks in ceilings and around equipment. 

Last November, the CDC reinspected the lab and approved the resumption of its most high-risk work — but only on a case-by-case basis. 

The shutdown has not affected work on the novel coronavirus, which is not listed among the most lethal substances, according to Col. Wendy Sammons Jackson, director of infectious disease research at the Army’s Medical Research and Development Command, located at Fort Detrick.

“It will take some time to come back to full operations, but we are working toward that goal, with safety as the No. 1 priority,” Sammons Jackson said in a statement.  

Other previously reported problems at the lab have included a microbiologist being locked in a minus 30-degree freezer for hours. 

The work is inherently dangerous. In 2004, a mouse that a researcher was injecting with a fluid containing a variant of the Zaire Ebola virus kicked the needle so that it pricked the researcher’s hand through gloves, according to an account in a journal called “Emerging Infectious Diseases.”

Broader safety issue

Fort Detrick is not the only Defense Department “high-containment” lab that has occasionally failed to adhere to safety procedures in a business where even one lapse can be disastrous. 

A 2016 audit by the Pentagon’s inspector general on the entire military biological research enterprise said that “the health and safety of the public was put at risk” because those labs had “used protocols that were not validated for their intended use, been inspected irregularly or not at all, and had significant deficiencies and vulnerabilities that were not corrected by DoD management.”

The IG is following up to assess how well the military research centers have implemented the auditors’ safety recommendations.

“The evaluation is ongoing,” said Dwrena Allen, spokeswoman for the inspector general. 

Money matters

The Pentagon informed lawmakers in February of the hold on $104 million in fiscal 2020 funds for the Fort Detrick lab and another lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground, located about 40 miles northeast of Baltimore, citing the CDC shutdown at Fort Detrick and financial issues at both labs.

The financial matters are not fully resolved, at least as of the Feb. 29 letter from Lord, the Pentagon acquisition chief. The Pentagon did not reply to repeated requests for an update.

Lord said in the letter that the Pentagon would release about $30 million of the fiscal 2020 money. But she insisted the Army needs to show that “proper fiscal controls are in place” and that money is not being spent “to pay for the same work twice.”

Similarly, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy was blunt about the financial issue at a March 3 House Armed Services hearing, saying overhead rates at the labs had grown by double digits from year to year.

“It was a management issue,” McCarthy testified.

Andrew Weber, a former Pentagon assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, said in an email that the Fort Detrick lab has taken strict measures since last year to address safety issues and it is time for the funding to be released.

“USAMRIID’s reopening could not come at a more critical time,” said Weber, now a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. “It is imperative that the Department of Defense lift its restriction on the use of Chemical and Biological Defense Program funding for urgent Coronavirus work at our nation’s premier Biodefense facility.”

Fort Detrick, meanwhile, could receive additional funding in the coronavirus stimulus package now under consideration. The legislation includes $415 million for Pentagon efforts to develop vaccines and antiviral medications, procurement of diagnostic tests and ensuring round-the-clock operations at Defense Department labs.

It is not clear how much of this money USAMRIID would receive and how quickly they could spend it, given the Pentagon’s restrictions on the lab’s money.