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Flaws in Bioterror Response

Incident reveals lack of government coordination and limited supplies of testing reagents

March 18, 2005


An anthrax false alarm at Pentagon mail centers in metropolitan Washington, D.C., earlier this week may be the wake-up call needed to correct flaws in the nation's response to a biohazard event, says Scott J. Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

Becker points to three shortcomings that this false alarm has revealed. "We still don't have validated methods for environmental sampling" several years after the 2001 anthrax attacks. What's more, he says, "We don't have coordination across the government, and we don't have a reagent stockpile" to respond to a widespread incident.

Routine testing of an air filter at one mail facility by a Pentagon subcontractor, Commonwealth Biotechnologies Inc. (CBI) of Richmond, Va., turned up a presumptive positive for anthrax. Confirmatory tests performed by CBI on the one positive sample--morphological, biochemical, and DNA sequencing analysis--also were positive, CBI President Robert B. Harris says. He tells C&EN that he was then instructed by the Pentagon's chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear response team to send the positive sample to two Army labs at Fort Detrick, Md. Confirmatory tests by the Army's labs were also positive.

Sampling on subsequent days turned up no further positives. The Pentagon believes that there was cross-contamination of the one positive sample by the anthrax standard that CBI uses to calibrate its polymerase chain reaction equipment. CBI is now conducting an audit of its lab and administrative procedures, which will be completed early next week.

The Pentagon did not immediately notify the Department of Homeland Security or the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention of the presumptive positive. This failure to notify meant that state and local officials were not alerted to a potential bioterror event for several days.

But, Becker asks, what if this week's false alarm turned out to be similar to the 2001 anthrax letter attacks--with many places under attack and testing occurring at many different labs within CDC's Laboratory Response Network? He is "concerned that there wouldn't be enough reagents to go around" to perform the tests necessary to identify the bioterror organism. Indeed, he says, once CDC was notified by the Pentagon, it began "working on an allocation scheme to get reagents where they would be needed."

"There's an easy fix to this problem," Becker says. "Congress can appropriate the funds that will permit CDC to develop a reagent stockpile."



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