It is reassuring that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has permitted the biosafety laboratories at Fort Detrick to begin operating again on a limited basis.
The Army post, with its many labs and thousands of employees and contractors, is a vital center of the Frederick community, as well as an important engine of our local economy.
And yet, we are still disturbed that the labs were apparently being run in a manner so unsafe that regulators felt the need to stop operations in the two most strongly controlled labs, and for weeks the public had no idea what was going on.
The troubling saga of the labs at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick has been a continuing issue over the summer, since the CDC stepped in and halted operations in July.
The problems were not reported until August, when a News-Post reporter got a tip. That delay led to wild, widespread rumors of even more serious issues at the post.
Work was stopped after the Army reported two breaches of containment. An inspection report, obtained by The News-Post under the Freedom of Information Act, details some of the findings of CDC inspectors as well as observations by USAMRIID employees who reported the issues.
According to the report, the two breaches demonstrated a failure of the Army laboratory to “implement and maintain containment procedures sufficient to contain select agents or toxins” in biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories. Those are the labs with the highest levels of containment, where scientists study infectious diseases such as the Ebola virus, plague and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.
The CDC report makes for alarming reading. It noted six departures from the federal regulations for handling select agents and toxins, and only one of those departures involved the two breaches. Inspectors had several general concerns about the operation of the labs.
The overall impression is that employees began to get lax, and that points to management failures in both training and supervision. The commander of the post was replaced after the CDC stopped operations, but the Army insisted the change was a part of normal officer rotation.
In one instance, personnel deliberately propped open the door to the autoclave room where materials are sterilized while the employee remove biohazard waste.
“This deviation increases the risk of contaminated air from room [redacted] escaping and being drawn into the autoclave room, where individuals do not wear respiratory protection,” according to the report.
The new commander, Col. E. Darrin Cox, told News-Post reporter Heather Mongilio that every item raised in the CDC report has been addressed. He said propping the door open was an “incident,” not one of the breaches.
“They weren’t doing it to openly flout the rules,” Cox said. “They were doing it for a reason that they thought was reasonable. But I mean, it still was not in compliance with [standard operating procedures].”
There were other incidents like the door propping that led the CDC to determine there was the systematic failure, he said. The CDC required that USAMRIID ensure personnel were being retrained, he said.
While under the cease and desist, the lab reviewed its training procedure, validated it to make sure it was working, trained its staff and validated their training, Cox said. It will continue to monitor to make sure the training continues.
As we wrote when the news was first reported about the CDC action, it is not smart for Fort Detrick to drag its feet in letting people know when things go wrong.
We expect a community institution such as Fort Detrick to be as transparent as possible, particularly when it comes to safety issues on post.
The willingness of Col. Cox to discuss the problems that were found and to explain the steps that have been taken to correct them is a welcome beginning. We encourage him to continue speaking out.