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

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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.

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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.