By Rick Weiss and David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 24, 2002; Page B01
For the second time this month, Army officials have found evidence of an accidental release of anthrax spores in an Army biodefense research building in Frederick, this one involving a different and relatively benign strain of the microbe.
The Army emphasized yesterday that no military researchers had fallen ill from the apparent lapses, and it offered reassurance that the public was not at risk. But an Army official also acknowledged that the discovery, which a university anthrax researcher yesterday called "highly embarrassing," indicated a failure to follow safety protocols at the high-security lab.
The Army's handling of the problem also drew criticism from political leaders and the director of a company that does laundry for the lab, who said the Army did a poor job of communicating with the firm after it appeared that the biowarfare bacteria might have spread to the off-base laundry.
The two new contamination spots were found in Fort Detrick's Building 1425 during testing conducted last weekend, officials said. That testing, involving more than 800 swabs, had been initiated Friday after potentially deadly anthrax spores were found to have escaped from a sealed lab and spread to other areas inside the building.
The newly discovered spores, whose precise location in the building was not revealed, belong to a strain that is used in vaccine research and is not capable of causing anthrax, said Charles F. Dasey, spokesman for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which operates the complex at Detrick.
The previous accidental release, first suspected April 8 after researchers found an apparent spill and confirmed by the Army on Friday, involved a strain that has not been identified but definitely is not the harmless vaccine strain, Dasey said. The spores were found in a locker room and adjacent hallway.
Martin E. Hugh-Jones, an anthrax researcher at Louisiana State University who used to work at Detrick, said the twin breachings of biological security were "highly embarrassing" and evidence of a lack of leadership there. "It looks like somebody made a mess, they tried to clean it up, they didn't tell anyone and they left."
But Tara O'Toole, director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, said that assessment was too harsh. Only four tests out of nearly 1,000 have come up positive, she noted. "That actually speaks to the excellence of their efforts."
The Army is investigating how the releases occurred but had no explanation yesterday. But Dasey acknowledged "a break in established laboratory procedure."
Scientists working in the biosafety level-3 lab, which is designed for experiments on deadly microbes, must leave lab clothing and booties behind in special refuse containers before leaving the lab. They exit directly into a shower area, where they are required to wash before entering less secure areas of the building.
The two discoveries of spores suggest that someone did not follow those procedures and tracked the microbes into unprotected areas, Dasey said. The first discovery in the locker room and adjacent hallway opened the possibility that contaminated towels may have been shipped to the laundry, where the spores could have hitched rides to other locations.
Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty criticized Detrick officials yesterday for not telling the city that spores might have spread off the Detrick compound.
"The concern here goes beyond the gates of Fort Detrick," Dougherty said.
Army officials informed the mayor of the building's problems about noon Friday, a few hours before telling the news media, Dasey said. But they did not alert city officials of the possibility that spores might have spread to Jeanne Bussard Center Inc., a nonprofit company that employs disabled people and does laundry for Fort Detrick.
Moreover, though the Army told the firm's executive director Friday that it would test laundry employees for exposure, it did not make clear that it would test the physical plant as well. When the executive director was unable to reach the Army on Saturday to confirm those intentions, she grew frustrated and scared and hired a private company to test the facility immediately.
Detrick officials, who say they had been trying unsuccessfully to reach the director, had the facility tested later that day and found no traces of anthrax. But by then, the town was abuzz with talk that the Jeanne Bussard Center might have been contaminated by anthrax.
Del. Sue Hecht (D-Frederick) said she heard rumors about contamination at the facility while walking in downtown Frederick on Saturday afternoon. She called Dougherty, who called city and county officials. None of the local officials knew that off-site workers had been tested, Hecht said.
"We realized that nobody knew about this," Hecht said. ". . . The good news is that everything was fine. The bad news is that there was a serious lack of communication and lack of process."
As of yesterday, about 35 people, including seven off-base laundry workers, had their noses swabbed for evidence of exposure, Dasey said. Only one of those people -- one of the two scientists who discovered the first spill -- has tested positive for exposure. That scientist had previously been vaccinated against anthrax but is now on antibiotics as a precaution.
The building is undergoing its second decontamination effort in four days in an effort to wipe out the newly discovered spores and also to make a second stab at killing all the spores from the first spill. Follow-up testing yesterday revealed that a few spores had survived the first decontamination effort.
Col. Edward Eitzen, commander of the Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, said yesterday that the laboratory "probably ought to institute a policy of routine sampling for pathogenic organisms in noncontainment areas," Eitzen said.