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

By Faye BowersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 2002


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.

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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.

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.