GC Ebola 1 (copy)

Research technicians dispose of materials while doing a cell culture drug screen of Ebola virus in a BSL 4 containment lab at USAMRIID on Fort Detrick in 2012.

The Fort Detrick military laboratory shut down by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month is working to return to full operations and resume its research on highly-dangerous bacteria, viruses and toxins.

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is currently evaluating its systems, processes and internal controls, said spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden in an email. USAMRIID is working with the CDC. It is unclear how long the laboratory will need to complete its plans.

USAMRIID received a cease and desist letter from the CDC on July 15, Vander Linden said, after a June inspection. The CDC also suspended USAMRIID’s registration Federal Select Agent Program, which monitors dangerous bacteria, viruses and toxins.

At the time, USAMRIID researchers were working on the Ebola virus in biosafety level laboratories and agents known to cause tularemia, also called deer fly or rabbit fever, the Plague and Venezuelan equine encephalitis in biosafety level 3 laboratories.

No agents were found outside of appropriate containment areas, Vander Linden said.

Three days prior, the CDC sent USAMRIID a letter of concern, Vander Linden said in the email. Employees received an email July 12 that ordered a safety stand-down with additional review of specific areas.

Former commander Maj. General Barbara Holcomb held a townhall with USAMRIID employees on July 16, during which she discussed the letter and gave employees a chance to comment and ask questions, Vander Linden said.

Employees learned more details, including the Federal Select Agent Program suspension, on Aug. 2.

As USAMRIID was grappling with the cease and desist and suspended registration, the organization also saw turnover with its command staff. Former commander Col. Gary Wheeler and Holcomb both had change of command ceremonies, with Wheeler on July 23 and Holcomb July 24. The change of command ceremonies were not due to issues at USAMRIID but rather the natural course of Army commands.

The new commander, Col. E. Darrin Cox, said in a statement Friday USAMRIID is a “national asset,” with dedicated and expert employees.

“I am optimistic about the future of USAMRIID, and I trust that our personnel are willing to join me and other leaders in the effort to build a firm foundation for this Institute,” Cox said in the statement.

What went wrong

The CDC suspended registration and sent the cease and desist letter due to concerns in standard operating procedures in place for work in biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories, according to previous News-Post reporting.

The CDC found a failure to follow local procedures, a lack of periodic recertification training for employees and problems with the wastewater decontamination system.

USAMRIID was working with a effluent decontamination system after the Fort Detrick steam sterilization plant failed after flooding in May 2018. That meant USAMRIID lost the ability to heat treat wastewater from laboratories, Vander Linden said in an email.

“After carefully considering several options, we resumed partial operations several months later using a chemical decontamination system…” she said in the email.

Wastewater is chemically treated within the lab, and nothing goes down the drain. The chemically-treated wastewater then goes to the chemical effluent decontamination system. The CDC approved the chemical effluent decontamination system for inactivating disease-causing material that could be found in the biosafety level 3 and 4 labs before USAMRIID began using, Vander Linden said in the email.

Inside of the chemical effluent decontamination system, the wastewater is treated again, this time with germ-killing chlorine bleach. It is then transported offsite for disposal, she said.

“There are a number of monitoring systems and engineering controls in place,” Vander Linden said in the email. “This allows for prompt resolution of any issues should they arise.”

Affect on work

At this time, USAMRIID is working to minimize disruption for employees, as well as those outside of the organization. The CDC suspension is not anticipated to affect USAMRIID’s move into a new facility on Fort Detrick, Vander Linden said in an email.

The new building will have a system for decontaminating laboratory wastewater that will be validated before any work can begin in biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories, she said.

Aging infrastructure at the base is a problem, she said, but that is not unique to Fort Detrick.

At the time of the research shutdown, USAMRIID was working on several projects, including a recent multi-year project with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, as well as other partners, to develop treatments for four lethal diseases with no treatments or vaccines, according to previous News-Post reporting.

Work at National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, operated by Battelle, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease’s Integrated Research Facility was not affected by the USAMRIID shutdown, respective representatives said.

NIAID researchers often work with those at USAMRIID.

“Some ongoing collaborative projects, such as Ebola monoclonal antibody research and vaccine research, have been paused due to the shutdown. Other researchers at outside institutions who are funded by NIAID had additional filovirus projects at USAMRIID that were interrupted due to the shutdown. NIAID-funded researchers at outside institutions who have future projects planned with USAMRIID may also be affected by the shutdown,” according to NIAID.

A systematic problem

Former safety director at USAMRIID Robert Hawley said he was surprised to hear about the shutdown. Hawley was at USAMRIID between 1988 and 2003.

Funding and leadership problems may have attributed to the failed CDC inspection, he said. Hawley questions if leadership took a strong enough role in promoting biosafety. That does not just stop at the USAMRIID command. It extends to funding agencies.

“And without that leadership the functioning is compromised,” he said.

Hawley said the blame does not lie with Wheeler or Cox, who were likely working within funding parameters.

Follow Heather Mongilio on Twitter: @HMongilio.

Heather Mongilio is the health and Fort Detrick reporter for the Frederick News-Post. She can be reached at hmongilio@newspost.com.

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