Vials of Lethal Pathogen Disappear From Fort Detrick

The U.S. Army is finishing an investigation into the disappearance of three vials of a potentially lethal pathogen from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., the Washington Post reported today.

The inquiry begun in 2008 by the service's Criminal Investigation Command is "in the final stages of its mandatory review process before being closed," according to command spokesman Christopher Grey. There is "no evidence to date of any criminality related to the unaccounted-for items," he said.

The Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus is considered a possible tool of bioterrorism, but poses a significantly smaller threat than anthrax and other disease agents handled at the institute.

The missing material is believed to have been destroyed when a freezer malfunctioned, said USAMRIID spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden. The absence was detected last year by a scientist conducting an inventory of samples that had been passed down by two other researchers upon their successive departures from the facility.

"We'll probably never know exactly what happened," said one Army official. "It could be the freezer malfunction. It could be they never existed."

Investigators spoke with "literally hundreds of people" in the course of their work, the official said.

"They caught me on my cell phone on the road, and I stopped and talked to them for quite a long time," said former laboratory scientist Alan Schmaljohn, who now teaches at the University of Maryland. "She was just going down this whole list of questions, including, 'Did you take it?'"

Schmaljohn answered in the negative. It would not be hard to lose three vials, particularly if they must be rearranged following a problem with a freezer, he said.

"The number of vials is utterly meaningless," Schmaljohn said. "Three vials missing is no indication of any evildoing. ... It's almost equivalent to saying you're missing 3 cents out of the national budget. ... From the scientist's point of view it is inconsequential, but from the regulator's point of view it is an indication of sloppiness, and they are finally going to take rugged action."

The institute's security practices are already under scrutiny, following the Justice Department's conclusion that USAMRIID scientist Bruce Ivins perpetrated the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people (see GSN, Jan. 6). Ivins killed himself in 2008 before any charges were filed.

The laboratory is also finishing a full inventory of its virus and bacterium holdings, which began in February after another accounting problem was found in storage of Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, the Post reported (see GSN, Feb. 10). Research largely stopped amid the accounting, though some has since resumed, Vander Linden said.

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