A Fort Detrick lab is guiding an overhaul of the FBI's bioforensics methods after a federal watchdog found flaws in the investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks.
During its investigation of the attacks, the FBI lacked a framework that would standardize its genetic testing process and provide statistical confidence in its results, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Friday.
Dr. Bruce Ivins, an anthrax researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, was the FBI's main suspect in the anthrax mailings, also known as the "Amerithrax" case, that killed five people and sickened 17 others.
The FBI traced samples of the anthrax spores found in the letters to a flask stored in a USAMRIID lab at Fort Detrick.
When the FBI started its investigation into the spores, "no standards or guidelines existed for verifying and validating microbial forensic methods," the GAO report stated.
The FBI asked laboratories that stored the Ames strain of the bacteria to send them to USAMRIID for preparation and entry into the FBI's repository, which eventually contained 1,070 anthrax samples.
The FBI then contracted four labs to find similarities between the Ames strain found on the letters and the Ames strain samples in the repository.
The GAO report stated the FBI lacked rigorous controls over the sampling procedures it used to build the repository, did not have a full understanding of genetic mutations in strains of bacteria and did not include "measures of uncertainty" that would help scientists interpret the evidence.
The GAO suggested the creation of a validation framework to ensure consistency when conducting genetic testing in future cases.
That framework may be developed by the National Bioforensics Analysis Center, a part of the Department of Homeland Security's National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center at Fort Detrick.
The lab, which opened in 2010, is the federal government's leading organization for forensic analysis of bioterrorism attacks or bio-crime and often assists the FBI in its investigations.
A spokesman for NBACC declined to comment on the Amerithrax case.
According to the report, the bioforensics center has standards in place to ensure that the results of its research meet requirements for admission of evidence in federal court proceedings.
The FBI concluded in 2010 that Ivins was responsible for the attacks, but as the GAO report states, "neither the case nor the totality of the evidence, including the scientific evidence that provided the FBI with valuable leads, was brought to trial in a court of law."
Ivins died in 2008 of an overdose of acetaminophen.
A spokesman for the FBI said the agency does not intend to reopen the case.
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