Fort Detrick stands up by standing down

Among the many things going on (or not going on) the last couple of weeks is a total "stand down" of the country's main biodefense research laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Here's the inter memo, dated February 4:

I will institute a stand down of all biological select agents and toxin (BSAT) activities beginning on Friday, the 6th. This is necessary to conduct a complete inventory to identify all BSAT in USAMRIID [U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases]. The standard we have employed for 100% accountability has been the ability to find every sample listed in the AIMS database. However, the standard for 100% accountability understood by the Army and DoD is the ability to account for every container of BSAT in the Institute. We have previously discovered BSAT not captured in AIMS database. This is probably due to accounting errors, transcription errors, or BSAT that had not been reassigned when an employee left the Institute. When this occurred, we either added it to the database or documented destruction, but overages now require submission of a Serious Incident Report, which goes to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. I believe that the probability that there are additional vials of BSAT not captured in our AIMS database is high.

We must take immediate steps to meet the Army and DoD definition of 100% accountability. Therefore, we will stand down until we have inventoried all freezers and refrigerators. I will need certification that the full contents of each freezer and refrigerator have been evaluated and that all BSAT is included in our inventory. We will use tomorrow to develop a process to conduct this inventory and provide that to you.

We will notify our funding partners. Animal research currently underway and animal care will not be affected by this stand down.

I apologize for the ramifications this action will have on your research, but I assure you this is an action we must take. (via ScienceInsider and their reporter Yudhijit Bhattacharjee)

It was signed by Col. John P. Skvorak, Fort Detrick, Commander. The translation is that USAMRIID can't account for all the bad stuff they have. Like what? Like four vials of Venezuelan equine encephalitis that didn't exist, according to records. And if they "don't exist," no one would know if they are removed from the premises -- for whatever purposes. Like an anthrax attack?

Select agents (biowarfare agents) not in the database are nothing new at Fort Detrick. The thing that's new is that instead of just adding them to the database when they are found, the lab is being shut down until there is a full inventory. One reason for this is that the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks almost certainly came from Fort Detrick. Who diverted and used it is still a matter of controversy (not for the FBI who has closed the case after bungling it but finally settling on a suspect who conveniently died without being able to defend himself in court), but the lack of security in the country's premier bioweapons laboratory was a scandal. Hence the stand down. Maybe the prospect of a new administration and Congress committed to more aggressive oversight helped to concentrate the mind.

At least at Fort Detrick. But Rutgers University Richard Ebright says there are a lot of other labs. In an email to Wired Magazine's Danger Room blog, Ebright wrote:

There currently are 400 U.S. institutions and 15,000 U.S. individuals authorized to possess bioweapons agents.

Security measures at the overwhelming majority of the 400 U.S. institutions that possess bioweapons agents are inadequate.

Very few of the 400 institutions has comprehensive video monitoring of work areas.

Very few of the 400 institutions has a two-person rule (a rule requiring that at least two persons be present when bioweapons agents are handled).

Very few of the 400 institutions perform psychological screening and psychological monitoring of personnel. (Wired)

Don't worry. I'm sure everything is under control.

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And if they "don't exist," no one would know if they are removed from the premises

That's really not true revere and I speak with reliable and adequate knowledge. Part of the problem is, or not, is the Security Guards that inspect the incoming and outgoing possessions of these scientists. It's a very thorough process and one that many underpaid guard's take seriously as their butts are riding on it.
But we can't predict what's going on in a person's life (security guard), and how they may be preoccupied with that personal life. Then there will be the unscrupulous overpaid scientists with an axe to grind that'll get away with ushering items out of their labs.

Security measures at the overwhelming majority of the 400 U.S. institutions that possess bioweapons agents are inadequate.

Again, the Security Guards that this falls on are one of the lowest paid of DoD employees.
And that just sounds like a cry for more money, more cameras, more evaluations, more of this and more of that.
Regular inspections are conducted and these inspections are rigorous and exact. The guys doing it are committed and have always been.

Lea: I don't know the basis for your claim at the beginning, but the rest of your comment just reinforces the problem and the point. The reason the Commondant ordered the stand down is exactly that reason. If there were no problem with uninventoried stuff getting out they wouldn't be so concerned. But there is and the stuff did get out and killed four people and sickened a bunch more. There was nothing in my post that blamed security guards. Giving them low pay is itself a weak link in the security system. If you want to evade a security check it isn't that hard as the TSA shows every day. And what they do or don't do at one lab does not necessarily apply to another.

revere: I've avoided commenting on your bio lab posts in the past because it's not a wise thing for me to do, therefore the shortness and inadequate comment on my part according to you.
I don't believe my comment reinforces anything. We've got darn good people working these places and as volatile as your post is these things are going to happen. It's been caught and now their going to remedy it.

Lea; At least one of the darn good people killed other people. I'm not sure we know who it was. But the stuff got out of Fort Detrick. There is no way to make these facilities perfectly safe. Whatever the physical safeguards, it's the human element that is always the weak link. This is the same thing as what you are saying when you observe (correctly) that we can't control what is going on in the private life of someone who works at one of these labs, whether it is a high paid scientist or administrator or a low paid security guard. That was the reason the lab stood down. If it were as tight as you imply (and then don't imply), they wouldn't have to stand down until the inventory was completed. But they did, and for the reason I stated. The facts are what they are and your own comment underlines the problem.

If it were as tight as you imply (and then don't imply), they wouldn't have to stand down until the inventory was completed.

Or it's because of a scientist I know that went to work there several months ago!

And where we are security IS TIGHT, extremely so.

Scratch that last comment about the scientist. I just said that because he is lazy and a horrible housekeeper.