Anthrax lab lax on security, say former workers

Sunday, December 23, 2001

FREDERICK, Md. -- Security has improved at an Army laboratory that works with anthrax since the deadly microbes were mailed to two senators, but during much of the 1990s, it was not stringent enough to prevent a possible theft, former scientists at the post said.

One former researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick said nothing would have prevented workers from removing deadly germs from the labs.

"As far as carrying anything out, microorganisms are small," said Luann Battersby, a biologist who left USAMRIID voluntarily in 1998 after eight years. "The problem would be getting in, not getting out."

Another scientist, Richard Crosland, said supervisors did not often check whether researchers were keeping track of lab materials as required. When they did, some researchers just submitted photocopies of old reports, said Crosland, who was laid off from USAMRIID in 1997.

Fort Detrick spokesman Charles Dasey declined to comment on the allegations of lax security. Regarding the possibility of someone stealing anthrax from the lab, he said: "Other people are saying it could be done. I don't expect it has been done."

Dasey said a security staff conducts random exit searches and has video cameras in some laboratory areas -- measures that Battersby said did not exist when she worked there.

Ames strain

The strain of anthrax found in letters mailed to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy is called Ames, after the city in Iowa where researchers first isolated it. Scientists at Detrick obtained a sample from the Agriculture Department in the early 1980s for vaccine testing and gave samples to at least five other labs.

Dasey said the lab works with the Ames strain only in cultured or liquid forms, and not in the dry powdered form used in the attacks. The Army said it has accounted for all the Ames anthrax that USAMRIID produced.

Yet the scientists, none of whom worked with anthrax, said it would have been easy to walk out with a few cells in a petri dish or smeared on their clothing that could then be grown and processed.

"No matter what you do, there is not any way you can prevent a determined, skillful microbiologist from stealing traces of a microbial culture that he is working with, because it takes so few microbes to start a culture," said Mark Wheelis, a University of California microbiologist who serves on a biological weapons committee of the Federation of American Scientists.

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