2001 anthrax attacks that killed five are traced to animal researcher

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2008:
WASHINGTON D.C.–The Federal Bureau of
Investigation on August 7, 2008 released
investigation reports that identify U.S. Army
Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases
anthrax researcher Bruce E. Ivins as the probable
mailer of anthrax-contaminated envelopes that
killed five people and sickened 17 others in
October 2001.
After learning of his impending
indictment for murder, Ivins, 62, on July 29,
2008 took a fatal overdose of Tylenol mixed with
John W. Ezzel, who hired Ivins to work
at the Army institute in Fort Detrick, Maryland,
told Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau of The New
York Times that Ivins had conducted “experiments
in which animals were exposed to anthrax to test

The animal research gave Ivins access to
anthrax spores and the equipment needed to turn
them into a weapon.
“Because the notes in some of the letters
mailed to news media and two senators included
radical Islamist rhetoric, investigators
initially believed the letters might have been
sent by Al Qaeda,” Shane and Lichtblau recalled.
“But the F.B.I. quickly settled on a different
profile: a disgruntled American scientist or
technician, perhaps one specializing in
biodefense, who wanted to raise an alarm about
the bioterrorism threat.
Added Los Angeles Times staff writers
David Willman and David C. Savage, “Ivins was
the sole custodian of the unique strain of
anthrax that caused the deaths, and had started
working late in his laboratory the nights before
the letters were mailed, according to a federal
affidavit from Thomas F. Dellafera, a postal
inspector who was part of the investigation team.
When asked for samples of the anthrax he was
working with, the affidavit said, Ivins
purposely provided the wrong or unusable material
until an FBI agent marched into his secure lab
and seized a flask of the lethal bacterium.
“As described by authorities Wednesday,
Ivins may have perpetrated the attacks in an
effort to create fear that would, in turn, spur
greater federal spending and overall support for
That was the short-term effect of the
anthrax offensive, which came less than a month
after the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on
the World Trade Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But the Ivins episode and many other hazardous
breaches of lab security have opened the question
of whether the markedly increased funding and
resultant rapid expansion of biodefense studies
using animals have actually made the U.S. safer.
“More than $20 billion has been spent on
biodefense research since 2001,” recounted
Center for International & Security Studies
senior research scholar Elisa D. Harris in an
August 12, 2008 New York Times guest column.
“At the National Institutes of Health, research
on bioweapons agents has increased from $53
million in 2001 to more than $1.6 billion in
2008. The Department of Defense has more than
doubled its investment in biodefense, to more
than $1 billion,” producing “an unprecedented
expansion of research facilities,” Harris
For example, the Department of Homeland
Security is reviewing five possible sites for a
new National Bio-and-Agro-Defense Facility, to
replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center,
built by the Army in World War II, transferred
to the USDA in 1954. Pressure to replace Plum
Island escalated after New York City attorney
Michael C. Carroll argued in his 2004 book Lab
257 – The Disturbing Story of the Government’s
Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory that accidents
at Plum Island might have introduced Lyme disease
and West Nile fever to the U.S., in 1975 and
1999, respectively.
Biodefense research advocates responded
that accidental releases of deadly disease from
top security laboratories are extremely rare,
and that investigations of diseases which might
pass from animals to people, called zoonotic
diseases, often produce vaccines and other
treatments that ultimately benefit both animals
and people.
But as Harris noted, “More than 14,000
scientists have been approved to work with
so-called select agents like anthrax that usually
pose little threat to public health unless they
are used as bioweapons,” and are seldom used as
bioweapons because–until now–few people have
had the knowledge and facilities to produce them
in a form useful as a weapon.
The Ivins case was the first post-9/11
alleged deliberate misuse of U.S. biodefense
research, but in 2004, Harris recited, “live
anthrax was accidentally shipped to a children’s
hospital research lab in Oakland, California,
and three lab researchers at Boston University
developed tularemia after being exposed to the
bacteria that causes it. In 2006, researchers
at Texas A&M were exposed to brucellosis and Q
“As an investigator for the Govern-ment
Accountability Office reported to Congress last
fall,” Harris emphasized, “the greater number
of researchers handling bioweapons agents has
increased the risk of such accidents.”
Between the cases Harris mentioned,
three lab mice who were infected with deadly
strains of plague as part of a federal biodefense
project disappeared in September 2005 from
separate cages at the University of Medicine &
Dentistry in New Jersey. The loss was disclosed
two weeks later by Josh Margolin and Ted Sherman
of the Newark Star-Ledger.
A mouse who was infected with Q fever
vanished from a Texas A&M lab shortly before the
brucellosis event came to light.
“In 2002,” coinciding with the rapid
expansion of biodefense research beyond
government laboratories, “new federal rules
required biodefense researchers to register their
labs with the CDC or USDA, and pass a Department
of Justice background check. They were also
required to devise safety plans and report
accidents to the government,” recounted Los
Angeles Times staff writer Jia-Rui Chong in
October 2007.
However, Chong learned, “A 2006 report
by the inspector general of the Department of
Health and Human Services found 11 out of 15
universities did not fulfill all the federal
requirements. Several universities kept sloppy
inventory records, and inspectors could not
identify who was gaining access to the [human] pathogens. Institutions working on animal and
plant pathogens did worse. None of the 10
institutions described in a 2006 report by the
USDA Inspector General met all standards. Many
had not updated their lists of people with access
to the pathogens and had failed to fully train
their staffs.
“All told, there have been 111 cases
involving potential loss of bioagents or human
exposure reported since 2003,” Chong wrote.
Agricultural labs
At that, Chong understated the
situation, citing the Army lab at Fort Detrick–
where Ivins worked–as an example of a safe
institution, and neglecting to note that the 10
sites that failed USDA audits in 2005 and 2006
were operated by USDA Wildlife Services. The
agency is familiar to animal advocates as the
official U.S. government exterminating company,
often hired by local governments other branches
of the federal government.
Wildlife Services killed 2.4 million
animals of 319 species in 2007, chiefly on
behalf of agribusinesss. The toll included more
than a million starlings, 307,622 blackbirds,
90,326 coyotes, 19,584 feral pigs, and 14,463
Canada geese, mostly by deploying poisons and
Relatively little of Wildlife Services’
work involves biological agents–but “All ten of
the Wildlife Services sites audited by the
Inspector General were found to be out of
compliance with bioterrorism regulations,” the
Colorado wildlife advocacy group Sinapu and
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
disclosed after obtaining the reports in July
“The Inspector General repeatedly found
USDA Wildlife Services to be in violation of the
Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act for
failing to secure ‘dangerous biological agents
and toxins,'” elaborated Wendy Keefover-Ring and
Carol Goldberg of Sinapu. Violations included
“not keeping accurate inventories whereby theft,
unauthorized sale or other losses of these toxins
could be detected, regular access to toxins by
unauthorized persons, distribution of chemical
agents to untrained individuals, and inadequate
security plans.”
Biodefense research and studies of human
disease have traditionally been done with greater
security than animal research associated with
agriculture–even when the agricultural threat is
well-recognized, as in Britain, where 10
million animals were slaughtered in 2001 to
contain an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease,
at cost of £8 billion. Between August and
October 2007 the Department of Food & Rural
Affairs fought apparent repeated outbreaks of
foot-and-mouth in the vicinity of the Institute
of Animal Health and Merial laboratories at
Pirbright. The outbreaks were eventually traced
back to Pirbright–initially to a faulty drainage
system, identified by Merial in November 2007,
but another possible source turned up.
Summarized The Times of London
countryside editor Valerie Elliott, after a
December 2007 government inquiry, “It is alleged
that contractors working on a £121 million
modernisation program at the laboratory collected
soil contaminated with live virus at the site and
sold it as top soil. Some of this was spread on
land next to a farm where animals were later
identified with the disease. Under government
guidelines, waste from any site dealing with
live disease viruses requires a disposal licence
from the Environment Agency, but DEFRA, which
took charge of the modernisation works at the
laboratory, appears to have overlooked the need
for such a licence in this case.”
The inquiry also found that the
appearance of repeated outbreaks resulted from
DEFRA underestimating the spread of the first
outbreak, which continued to develop after it
was believed to have been contained.

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