At anthrax base, 'space suits' and haze of suspicion

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Col. Erik Henchal can't wait to begin. Before he's even finished striding from his desk to a conference table, he launches into a tirade – without provocation – on his lab's mission.

That mission, he says, is defensive. Henchal and his fellow scientists at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases – known by the ungainly acronym USAMRIID – have long been the nation's chief line of defense against anthrax and other, more deadly viruses. For 32 years, USAMRIID has delved into the secrets of the deadliest bugs known to humankind, all in the name of developing vaccines, detection methods, and other countermeasures.

But then came last year's deadly string of anthrax letters in the US – just the sort of attack this lab aims to prevent. Worse, it turns out that the bugs used in the envelopes were derived from a strain developed here in the 1980s.

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In fact, the FBI is now focusing its search for the anthrax culprit among past and current USAMRIID workers.

Once they were silent heroes. Now, they're possibly dangerous saboteurs. No one here is immune from scrutiny – not even the commander.

"Oh yes, I've been questioned," says the red-faced Col. Henchal, seated in his office during a rare interview.

The FBI has questioned all of the scientists here at this huge, low tan building about a hour north of Washington. Some have been interrogated more than once. Several have been polygraphed. And at least one, sometimes two, FBI agents are on the premises every day.

Henchal was interrogated like everyone else because he had access to the lab rooms where anthrax was present.

"No one wants the perpetrator to be caught more than USAMRIID.... The best thing for the FBI to do is to remove all reasonable doubt," he says, "We have gotten used to the enhanced oversight."

The military set up USAMRIID in the early 1970s, shortly after President Nixon ordered the US offensive biological weapons program to close.

Today, USAMRIID employs 650 people. About 125 are scientists with doctoral degrees, mainly in virology, microbiology, and veterinary medicine.

The work they do here, Henchal says, is critical to America's national security. He says more than 20 countries already have biological warfare capabilities, and are working on methods of disbursing them. At least 10 other countries are developing them. Then there's the threat from terror groups.

A dangerous line of work

Currently, scientists at USAMRIID have diagnostics – the capability to quickly identify – some 85 agents; it's their priority to develop countermeasures against 40 of those. And they are currently in various stages of working on vaccine development programs for 10, including anthrax, and the Ebola and Marburg viruses.

"We know the Russians were looking at weaponizing Marburg," Henchal says.

The labs where USAMARIID does this very dangerous work are reached from the office suites through a long, tan wallpapered hall and a metal door that opens only after a worker scans a magnetic identification card. Ahead are labyrinthine halls and labs – 50,000 square feet at biosafety level 3, where agents like anthrax, plague, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis are studied, and the 10,000 square feet at biosafety level 4, where research is done with the most deadly agents, like Ebola and Marburg. To get into any of those, the worker needs to re-enter the magnetic card, along with a four-digit number that's only issued after the worker has been immunized against that particular bug. The doors are also keyed in to central security, so there is a master list of who enters and exits the labs.

Lisa Hensley splits her time between developing treatments and more effective vaccines for Ebola at USAMRIID and smallpox at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. The work is carried out in the biosafety level 4 suites. She enters an outer area, where she strips off her street clothes and shoes and dons hospital-like scrubs and socks. Then, she puts on what they call a blue "space suit," a 12-pound pressurized and ventilated suit that provides filtered breathing air. After she enters the actual lab – a small, square cinderblock room lined with petri dishes, incubators, centrifuges, pipets, an inverted microscope, and other scientific paraphernalia – she plugs in her lifeline – a yellow, spiral air hose that hangs from the ceiling.

The actual work – growing cell cultures, infecting them, observing what proteins come out of those cells, then injecting animals with the bug – usually takes two to five years, Dr. Hensley says.

She's worked at USAMRIID for four years; she came here as a post doctoral fellow and stayed. She says the work is not only vital to the biodefense of this country, but part of the larger public health picture. "That's what drives us to put in as many hours as we do." On the smallpox project, where she divides her time between this lab and the Center for Disease Control labs in Atlanta, she puts in an average of 60 to 80 hours per week.

When the scientists at this lab worked to identify the anthrax bacteria from the letters mailed last fall, scientists here put in 100-hour weeks. Some slept in their cars, others in their labs.

"Between 11 Sept. and May, USAMRIID processed over 31,000 samples and 260,000 assays in our forensic-based lab." Henchal says. Under normal conditions, they process four to six samples per month.

Questions for everybody

Hensley wasn't interrogated, because she didn't work on the anthrax letters project. But she did receive a call from the FBI because she had been inoculated against the disease. Everyone who had access to inoculation has at least been questioned.

"I understand that any lab involved in this type of work would naturally be suspect," Hensley says. "From a personal point of view, though, I think it was very difficult. These scientists' hearts are in the right place. We could go someplace else and make a lot of money."

Many others agree with this assessment. David Franz, former commander of USAMRIID says he left four years ago "with tears running down my chin."

He, as well as many others in the scientific community, say the scientists at USAMRIID are unfairly taking heat. They point out that the Ames strain of the anthrax virus was developed and worked on here. But it's also been sent out to at least five other laboratories.

"If some scientist wanted to work on anthrax in a university, they could get it," Dr. Franz says.

Moreover, "any country with first-rate science could have this," says Joseph Foxell, director of information security for New York City. He lists several that are capable: almost all of the European countries, Japan, Israel, Egypt, and Pakistan. Maybe Iraq.

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