FORT DETRICK, MARYLAND--To outsiders, the research at this Army base an hour north of Washington, D.C., has always seemed slightly sinister. During World War II, scientists here embarked on a large, top-secret program to develop biological weapons that could kill thousands, even millions. Although that was ended in 1969 and scientists switched to purely defensive research, rumors about clandestine experiments in underground labs persist to this day. Even in the scientific world, the researchers have remained the odd ones out, studying exotic diseases that might cripple an army but have actually infected few people and that most other researchers cared little about.
Now, everything is different. In the post-9/11 world, the expertise built up at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the main research institute at Fort Detrick, has proven invaluable--and suddenly everyone is grateful. The lab is working closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to help unmask whoever sent the anthrax letters last fall; the so-called Brokaw, Daschle, and Leahy letters were sent here to be investigated; and the lab serves as the repository for anthrax strains subpoenaed from other labs. Tens of thousands popped Cipro last fall because USAMRIID's Arthur Friedlander showed it could protect monkeys from anthrax.
The institute is garnering some scientific respect, too. After two recent visits, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, says he was "quite surprised" by the lab's expertise and technical capabilities. Fauci hopes to collaborate closely with the lab now that President George W. Bush has requested a whopping $1.7 billion in new bioterrorism funds for NIAID. "This has pulled us out of the intellectual backwaters and into the mainstream" says senior USAMRIID researcher Peter Jahrling, who studies smallpox and viral hemorrhagic fevers.
But at the same time that USAMRIID is helping in the bioterror investigation, the institute is under intense scrutiny as the potential source of the anthrax--and perhaps even the terrorist. The research strain called Ames, used in the letters, made its debut here after being isolated from a Texas cow, although it was subsequently sent on to more than a dozen other labs. The powder's sophistication suggests to some that the bioterrorist had connections to the earlier offensive biowarfare program, and the FBI has recently started giving employees lie detector tests. To complicate matters further, the lab has gone through several high-profile PR hiccups in recent months--including a finding of anthrax spores outside a high-containment facility that is still under investigation.
Even more threatening to the lab's future, some researchers say, is that it's missing out on the current bioterrorism bonanza. Its budget, some $50 million annually, is already far eclipsed by NIAID's spending, and no increase is in sight. Several top researchers have left over the last decade, some of them demoralized by what they see as neglect by the Department of Defense (DOD) and a stifling military leadership. Within a few years, "Rid," as it's affectionately called, might lose its...
This is a preview. Get the full text through your school or public library.