Sarin

First let me say that I am not back from my sudden departure from the blogosphere, and I do not have an ETA for when I plan to be regularly blogging again. However, maybe as something of a tease, I do have a link to pass along to Molecule of the Day’s post on sarin.

Who among you can point out, without giving away anything you shouldn’t, what’s wrong with the post?

Spertzel: wrong on weaponized anthrax

So Richard Spertzel, former U.N. weapons inspector, had this to say in WSJ:

Information released by the FBI over the past seven years indicates a product of exceptional quality. The product contained essentially pure spores. The particle size was 1.5 to 3 microns in diameter. There are several methods used to produce anthrax that small. But most of them require milling the spores to a size small enough that it can be inhaled into the lower reaches of the lungs. In this case, however, the anthrax spores were not milled.

What’s more, they were also tailored to make them potentially more dangerous. According to a FBI news release from November 2001, the particles were coated by a “product not seen previously to be used in this fashion before.” Apparently, the spores were coated with a polyglass which tightly bound hydrophilic silica to each particle. That’s what was briefed (according to one of my former weapons inspectors at the United Nations Special Commission) by the FBI to the German Foreign Ministry at the time.

Another FBI leak indicated that each particle was given a weak electric charge, thereby causing the particles to repel each other at the molecular level. This made it easier for the spores to float in the air, and increased their retention in the lungs.

Um, no.  I’ll trust a peer-reviewed assessment over some policy-pressurized briefing, thank you.

According to the FBI scientist who analyzed the anthrax letters, Douglas Beecher, it was NOT “weaponized.” He published this in Applied and Environmental Microbiology in 2006.

Individuals familiar with the compositions of the powders in the letters have indicated that they were comprised simply of spores purified to different extents (6). However, a widely circulated misconception is that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production. This idea is usually the basis for implying that the powders were inordinately dangerous compared to spores alone (3, 6, 12; J. Kelly, Washington Times, 21 October 2003; G. Gugliotta and G. Matsumoto, The Washington Post, 28 October 2002). The persistent credence given to this impression fosters erroneous preconceptions, which may misguide research and preparedness efforts and generally detract from the magnitude of hazards posed by simple spore preparations.

Purification of spores may exacerbate their dissemination to some extent by removing adhesive contaminants and maximizing the spore concentration. However, even in a crude state, dried microbial agents have long been considered especially hazardous. Experiments mimicking laboratory accidents have demonstrated that simply breaking vials of lyophilized bacterial cultures creates concentrated and persistent aerosols (4, 8). The potential for propagating disease with crude lyophilized material is illustrated by an outbreak of 24 cases of Venezuelan equine encephalitis throughout three floors of a Moscow virology institute. These infections were caused when vials containing dried infected mouse brain were accidentally broken on a stairwell landing and were spread by air currents and foot traffic (11).

Can we just put this to rest? Dry it, grind it up. It’s good enough for envelope dissemination. Poof!

Biological surety—would you pass?

For those few out there seething with conspiracy theories about how the government has framed Bruce Ivins with the Amerithrax murders, I gotta tell ya, it’s not looking good for your side at this point but it’s not entirely in the bag yet.

He’s been under the microscope, so to speak, since 2006.  How they kept that a secret I’ll never know, considering they were like a sieve with Hatfill.  Anyhoo, a few key tidbits are trickling out that are adding up to what would have been a lifetime prison cell with Ivins’ name on it. Here are a few points I horked from Global Security Newswire, with some of my comments:

“New and sophisticated scientific tools”…helped the FBI better compare anthrax strains used in the mailings to samples at various U.S. biodefense facilities, said sources familiar with the investigation (Washington Post I, Aug. 2).

… “It had to do with the very specific characteristics in the DNA of the letters and what was in Bruce’s labs,” a government scientist familiar with the investigation said yesterday. “They were cultures he was personally responsible for.” (Lara Jakes Jordan, Associated Press I/Yahoo!News, Aug. 4).

Specifically, the strain that was analyzed from a flask in his lab had a certain string of 35 adenine bases that matched the DNA from spores taken from victims.

Investigators depended on largely circumstantial evidence to distinguish Ivins from at least nine others with access to the anthrax, the Times reported.

The FBI has obtained no proof that Ivins traveled drop off the anthrax mailings at their suspected delivery point at Princeton, N.J. However, investigators traced the prestamped envelopes used in the mailing to three Maryland post offices, including one where Ivins rented a post office box under a pseudonym.

Ivins was also believed to have stayed long past normal business hours at the Army laboratory around the time of the attacks.

I will tell you that nothing looks worse and raises red flags like staying very late in a secure area when no one else is around, for no apparent reason.

People close to Ivins said he was strongly devoted to developing vaccines that could help defend against a biological attack. They questioned whether he might be connected to the “Amerithrax” case, the Post reported.

“He was passionate about it — he really cared,” said one colleague who conducted research with Ivins. Another said: “Almost everybody … believes that he had absolutely nothing to do with Amerithrax.”

Hmmm. If someone did something he regretted but couldn’t report, he might dedicate himself to fixing it in order to assuage his guilt…just a personal speculation.  In any case, he seemed to be able to function at work without raising suspicions until he was committed on July 10th.

Still, Ivins retained his security clearance to work with deadly biological warfare agents until July 10, when he was barred from the Army site at the request of a counselor, the Post reported.

On that day, he attended a restricted meeting to discuss a bubonic plague vaccine being developed at the facility (Washington Post III, Aug. 4).

Revelations into Ivins’s troubled mental state have raised concerns that other workers with sensitive biodefense positions could be similarly unstable, AP reported.

Ivins had managed to slip past military attempts to screen out unstable personnel, and mental health evaluations are even less thorough at university and private research facilities, AP said.

Roughly 14,000 people are authorized to conduct work with “select agents,” biological agents that have weapon potential.

“You cannot persuade me there are not more disturbed or disgruntled persons with a political agenda in such a large group,” Rutgers University chemistry professor Richard Ebright said yesterday.

Uh, yeah.  There are lots of disturbed or disgruntled people out there, going through tough times in their lives, divorces, shitty bosses, or whatever.  When I was in the Nuclear Surety Program and supposedly subject to Thought Police and constant inspection of my lifestyle, I’m pretty sure I’ve never worked with a more psychotic group of rule-breaking, drunken misanthropes.  I suppose that’s what you get when you take a bunch of 20-something Army kids with all their dumb dramas and send them to a place where beer is a national staple food.

But there’s crazy in a fun way, there are folks who handle their stresses by letting off some steam, and then there’s totally bugfuck nuts. I’m still mystified that someone who was reportedly so deranged for so long could have been well regarded at work and not under suspicion at all while cheerily lyophilizing batches of anthrax slurry delivered from Dugway.  I swear I am getting to a point here.  The thing is, as I predicted, the murmur about dangerous scientists is building to a mild uproar and we don’t have any new answers to this problem.  All we have are the same old answers we’ve used for decades.

So as I sit here jamming to some head-banging Rammstein and pondering what constitutes acceptable behavior for a scientist working with select agents in an Army lab (my musical tastes probably disqualify me outright), I’m perusing the latest implementation of AR 50-1, Biological Surety, dated 28 July 2008. Here’s the part where someone’s personal assessment of you can make it or break it for you.

2–8. Other disqualifying factors
Any of the following traits, diagnoses, conditions, or conduct listed below may be grounds for the disqualification of an individual from the BPRP, based on the certifying official’s informed judgment.

d. Inappropriate attitude, conduct, or behavior. In determining reliability, the certifying official will conduct a careful and balanced evaluation of all aspects of an individual. Specific factors to consider include, but are not limited to—
(1) Negligence or delinquency in performance of duty.
(2) Conviction of, or involvement in, a serious incident indicating a contemptuous attitude toward the law, regulations, or other duly constituted authority. Serious incidents include, but are not limited to assault, sexual misconduct, financial irresponsibility, contempt of court, making false official statements, habitual violation of traffic laws, and domestic violence.
(3) Poor attitude or lack of motivation. Poor attitude can include arrogance, inflexibility, suspiciousness, hostility, flippancy toward BPRP responsibilities, and extreme moods or mood swings.
(4) Aggressive/threatening behavior toward other individuals.
(5) Attempting to conceal PDI [potentially disqualifying information] from certifying officials through false or misleading statements, or by willfully neglecting to report current PDI.

Hey, I’ve just disqualified my entire chain of command! Arrogant, hostile, inflexible, moody—I totally know that guy! This is why I’m skeptical about a so-called biological sciences code of ethics, as well.  First of all, the bad crazy ones pass just fine.  Look at that kook, Robert Hansen.  Second, really smart people are often just a tiny bit weird and quirky, in case you never noticed.  And often irritating.  Their not-as-smart bureaucratic managers tend to be about as interesting as cream of wheat. If the personality test is left up to them, they might disqualify anyone with an IQ over oatmeal.

What’s the solution? I. Don’t. Know. This might be a nice time for the NSABB to pipe in with some advice, since their charter includes “Professional codes of conduct for scientists and laboratory workers that can be adopted by professional organizations and institutions engaged in life science research.” Oh, there’s that code of ethics again.  But there are at least a couple of other bioscience advisory groups the government could ping for input, as well.  Their members should be anticipating the call.

Ivins’ plan to kill coworkers

There’s more today at the NYT on Bruce Ivins, as relayed by Jean Duley, a social worker who counseled him.  Apparently, he was a very sick man.

Bruce E. Ivins arrived last month for a group counseling session at a psychiatric center here in his hometown with a startling announcement: Facing the prospect of murder charges, he had bought a bulletproof vest and a gun as he contemplated killing his co-workers at the nearby Army research laboratory.

“He was going to go out in a blaze of glory, that he was going to take everybody out with him,” said a social worker in a transcript of a hearing at which she sought a restraining order against Dr. Ivins after his threats.

Scroll down the NYT page and look for the mp3 link to hear Duley’s spoken statement to the court as she requested a restraining order. Ivins was forcibly committted after making the above statement on July 9th.  In fact, they took him while he was at work.  He was not allowed back to the USAMRIID lab or Ft. Detrick after this incident.  I’m pretty sure a threat to kill all your coworkers would be enough to permanently pull your clearance.

Duley said he’d attempted to kill other people by poisoning, and described him as a revenge killer.

I don’t understand if there are, as she says, numerous other (I assume older?) records from psychiatrists and psychologists describing him as homicidal and sociopathic, how was he able to work at USAMRIID?  How old were those earlier medical records? Is this something doctors were concerned about for years, or just in the final weeks? Was Ivins still working after doctors came to those conclusions?

Another weird thing is that the only statements that have come from his own coworkers so far describe him as a fairly decent guy at work.  Makes you wonder about which fairly decent guy with a top secret security clearance in your own office might decide to go out in a blaze of glory and take everybody out with him.  Creepy.


UPDATE: Too many biodefense labs? We now have about 14,000 people at about 400 labs allowed to work with select agents. See a discussion of the problem here, also at NYT. My opinion, as you probably know, is we’re on the wrong track. But the only way to rein this in is to rein in the funding.


UPDATE: One more update here, New Scientist blogger Debora MacKenzie wonders just like I do,

The papers describe “a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, plans, threats and actions”. That would be 30 or 40 years ago. Was there really someone with a psychiatric history like that at the main US biodefense lab, USAMRIID, and he wasn’t investigated before?

That part I just really don’t get.

So begins the hand-wringing about mad biodefense scientists

As I mentioned in my two previous posts about the Amerithrax suspect, (here and here), the entire country will soon be all tits-a-flutter about the looming threat of mad biodefense scientists.

Science magazine joins in with this article and soundbites from Gerald Epstein and Jonathan Tucker.

Biodefense researchers were pondering today whether there might be a backlash to their field if the worst bioterror crime in U.S. history was indeed committed by a scientist who had spent a career developing countermeasures against anthrax. But the fact that Ivins won’t face trial also raised the uncomfortable specter that the full truth about the case may never come out. “We may never know for sure whether he did it or not,” says virologist Thomas Geisbert, a former USAMRIID researcher now at Boston University.


The death–and presumed involvement in the anthrax letters–puts the biodefense research community in a tight spot, says Gerald Epstein, a biosecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “From the very beginning, there has been speculation that the attacks were carried out by a biodefense zealot who wanted to prove that bioterrorism was a serious problem,” says Epstein. If true, that could give the public the impression that “biodefense research is a giant fraud,” he says. “It would be unfortunate if the message people take away from this is that the only individuals we should be concerned about are deranged biodefense scientists.”


Jonathan Tucker, a specialist on biological weapons control, says the incident is bound to evoke new concerns about “insider threats” at government and university labs. Officials may be compelled to further scrutinize researchers who work with select agents, Tucker says, adding that some questions have already been raised about “the adequacy of the screening process” used by the FBI to determine if a scientist should be allowed to work with a dangerous pathogen.

Where the bad bugs are

Where bad bugs are

This issue has been debated for a long time. Several years ago I would have pooh-poohed the idea that highly trained and vetted scientists would present such a risk.  But for at least the last couple of years I’ve felt that the expansion of biodefense labs is related not to research need but to homeland defense money.  If you build it they will come, and a couple of them might be frakking nuts.  Do we not now have enough investment in the study of the most dangerous, but least likely threats? How much more likely do these threats become, due to expanding the numbers of labs people handling them?

On the other hand, if Ivins was our guy, he’s been working in biodefense for nearly 20 years. Who knows when he could have gone over the edge? Would anyone have known? His coworkers seem to have liked him and don’t believe he was responsible, by the statements we’ve seen so far.

It may be that the risk of a deranged scientist is one that we’ve already taken all possible precautions against.  Screenings, protocols, security policies, all of these are already in place. There’s been some discussion of inculcating a “life scientist’s code of ethics” at universities—a noble initiative but will have zero effect on someone who is already there intending to become an insider threat.

I don’t know the answer, but I know that you’re going to be seeing a lot of this hand-wringing in the days and weeks to come.


UPDATE: More opinion at Wired Science and Danger Room.

Community frets over loss of chem weapons jobs

Who’s sorry to say goodbye to a thousand tons of old slime? The people who make their livings by babysitting it, of course.  But all good things come to an end, like the extremely hot villain in Hellboy II.  Damn it all. Er…but I digress.

By the end of this month, the last of 1,269 tons of VX will be eliminated, and dismantling of the Newport Chemical Depot will begin. About 130 jobs will be gone permanently by September, according to the Kentucky-based operating contractor Mason & Hanger. After that, depending on the time it takes to dismantle the facility, jobs will be lost in waves. The total closure process could take until 2012, according to officials.

Since the Depot opened in 1941, it has been the largest employer in Vermillion County, employing about 1,000 workers in recent years.

…“We’ve always looked at that facility as about a thousand jobs.”

I’m not sure how many jobs will be lost across the country as a result of CW destruction. It’s a little weird to think that getting rid of these weapons would actually harm someone, if only temporarily. When I worked on nuclear warheads, I spent no small amount of time wrangling with the ethics of my job. Often I’d tell myself that if I wasn’t taking care of these babies, someone else would—so quitting would not make any difference.  Which was a flawed argument, because if I was uncomfortable with anything about the weapons, then I should have quit just for myself, and I eventually did.

The nice Midwesterners babysitting our vats of poison might not spend too much time on that internal conversation, but then again they don’t really need to. The U.S. is not going to use CW in a war, period. Nukes, well, we might think about it someday if we’re in just the right pinch. Again.

Despite impending financial insecurity, I hope the folks at Newport and elsewhere still in some small way feel happy for the country to be getting rid of these agents; meanwhile, some affected communities will no doubt offer business incentives to bring in new opportunities in the future.  Communities like Newport, with less than 1,000 people, might see a mass exodus and essentially the end of the town.  That hurts, but at the risk of sounding glib, in this case change is good.

Click the image for current info about CW destruction.

Iran: suspicious monkey business

The Sunday Times reported this weekend on illicit purchases of endangered monkeys from Tanzania for supposed medical research. The article pointed out Iran’s purchases in particular as a bit unusual:

…scientists at the Razi Vaccine and Serum Research Institute in Iran had bought 215 vervet monkeys from him this year but he had become suspicious about their true motive, although he was still trading with them. They had “spent a lot of money” on getting the monkeys, even sending over scientists to check on each consignment.

“Iran is very secretive,” said Manji, who has been exporting monkeys for 22 years. “They said it [the monkeys] was for ‘our country’, for vaccine. [They said] ‘We don’t buy vaccine from anywhere; we prepare our own vaccine’.

“But I think they use it for something else. You know why? Because they don’t go on kilos. Iran wants [monkeys weighing] 1.5kg to 2.5kg, [but] 1.5kg for vaccine is not possible.”

What, Iran might be engaged in some sort of potentially offensive biowarfare research? Say it isn’t so! But not so fast…the article goes on to present a possible rebuttal to the statement from the monkey exporter:

It is unclear exactly which type of vaccine the Razi scientists are claiming to be using the vervets for, but the World Health Organisation guidelines on the production of polio vaccine state that vervet monkeys used for testing it should weigh a minimum of 1.5kg. However, the monkeys’ kidney cells can also be used to produce the vaccine, in which case the weight is not relevant.

The story doesn’t provide further insight into Iran’s alleged biowarfare activities. It just generates more questions.

NTI’s page on the Razi Institute


Update: Welcome, Danger Room readers! Here are a few more links ref. Iran’s alleged CBW programs. The thing is, all the unclassified stuff is old, and the sources for it are old. You need to view these things with the understanding that these were the estimates at the time.

Iran’s Continuing Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction (State Dept., 2004)

Iran’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs (CIA, 2000)

Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs (CNS, 2002)

End of the pox?

It may be the silver bullet. Investors think so, and so far it seems pretty darned convincing.

SIGA Technologies announces that its lead smallpox drug, ST-246, has passed another milestone by demonstrating 100% protection against death in cynomolgus monkeys showing signs of infection with monkeypox virus as part of a primate trial conducted at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. The study included a wide range of doses, all of which successfully prevented death, including a dose that was one one-hundredth of the dose given in prior primate trials. The amount of virus introduced into each animal is usually fatal absent ST-246 (all of the control subjects died), and all of the animals had developed fever and skin lesions prior to the administration of SIGA’s drug.

This drug recently had its first limited human trial under strange circumstances. It was used to treat a child suffering from a life-threatening case of eczema vaccinatum or extensive, life threatening vaccinia infection (a poxvirus used in the standard smallpox vaccine). The child recovered; however, it is not known whether the recovery was due entirely to the action of the drug.

I’ve mentioned this previously here, here, and here.

Links: Reuters, SIGA Technologies

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