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MARYLAND GERM LAB NEIGHBORS EITHER LOVE IT OR LOATHE IT
SIMILAR LAB PLAN PROTESTED IN UTAH

SHARE MARYLAND GERM LAB NEIGHBORS EITHER LOVE IT OR LOATHE IT
SIMILAR LAB PLAN PROTESTED IN UTAH

While two boys play catch along their backyard fence here, less than a block away sits an Army lab at Fort Detrick where experiments may be conducted with deadly germs that cause diseases without cure.

When a similar lab was proposed at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah last year, politicians and scientists protested because Salt Lake City was just 70 miles away. The boys playing catch so close to the lab here seem unconcerned about such worries.They are among the 40,000 people who live in this city surrounding Fort Detrick. Many residents work at the base. Others commute to Baltimore or Washington, D.C., which are both just 45 miles away in different directions.

Living so close to Fort Detrick and its five decades of germ lab work have produced two types of residents here: those who are maybe the least worried of anyone anywhere about danger from germ lab accidents, and those with the most intense fear.

Both have their monuments on base.

Chuck Dasey, who handles public affairs for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID, pronounced U-SAM-RID) at Detrick, drives his car up slowly to one.

It is a giant, metallic sphere, six stories tall. It was where aerosols were made from deadly germs between World War II and 1969, when the United States stopped its offensive germ warfare program. Utah politicians last year fought proposals to build a modern, much smaller version of that chamber at Dugway.

Dasey points to a plaque at the base of that sphere. "It's on the National Register of Historic Places, see? People here are proud of the role they played in defending the nation, so they nominated it for the register."

Neil Levitt, a former researcher at USAMRIID who is now its major critic, later points to another type of monument on base.

"Look at the names of the streets. Some of them are named for workers who died in biological experiments. Some of them weren't warned about the risks they faced," he said.

He worries that the Army is sometimes reckless in its tests, which he says have no real value anyway in protecting against a germ warfare attack. His worry is intense in part because he lives just two blocks from USAMRIID's lab. He is a close neighbor of the boys playing catch.

People on both sides of the issue in Frederick are eager to present facts supporting their case and in turn try to explain why Utahns should or should not worry about new proposed labs at Dugway.

The Army's side in Frederick has long been defended by Col. David Huxsoll, USAMRIID's commander for almost six years.

His office is in a building that also houses a lab with a "biosafety level 4" (BL4) rating, the safest possible. That rating could allow the Army to work there with genetic-engineered germs that cause diseases without cure.

That doesn't worry Huxsoll. "If the Army would allow me to build a house on top of this building and put it right over the duct on the BL4 laboratory, I'd have the best air in all the country," he said.

Huxsoll said the lab is safe because of numerous air filters that kill germs, requirements to have workers receive their own air supply while wearing astronaut-like suits, incineration of such suits after use and requirements that workers take water and weak-acid showers after they shed their suits to ensure that all germs are killed.

Also, security cards and codes are needed to approach rooms and hallways around the lab. And USAMRIID uses specially encased gurneys and equipment to keep germs from escaping while transporting people with exotic diseases to the lab. Employees are often vaccinated for diseases they expect to encounter.

The lab is immaculate and full of high-tech machines. It looks as if it came out of a science fiction movie - even though it is 20 years old.

In contrast, the Baker Life Sciences Lab at Dugway looks much older and more decrepit than it should for being 36 years old, and scientists there admit much of their equipment was last considered "high-tech" in the 1950s. A replacement lab is scheduled to be built there soon.

The Army had also wanted a BL4 lab as part of the renovation at Dugway, but public concern about use of germs that cause disease without cure forced the Army to instead plan a BL3 lab - which works with diseases for which cures or vaccines are available.

Huxsoll is quick to say USAMRIID uses no genetically engineered germs for its aerosolization tests, "and I don't know of anybody who does."

He also points out that, as a recent Army study reported, "in over 40 years of laboratory studies of hazardous infectious organisms at Ft. Detrick, no member of the general public has ever been infected with a laboratory organism."

Its safety record among employees has also continually improved.

It had three deaths between World War II and 1964 when it was developing germ weapons, and none since. From 1943 to 1945, it reached a peak rate of 35 infections of lab personnel per million lab hours worked. But from 1983 to 1987, documents say that no illness developed from lab work - but 20 incidents occurred where employees were exposed to germs because of needle pricks or spills.

Huxsoll said USAMRIID has been open with its neighbors.

Work was done in secret at Detrick during the early years when offensive germ weapons were being developed. But when the offensive program ended in 1969 (shortly after thousands of sheep were killed by an Army nerve gas accident in Skull Valley, Utah), all work and reports have been unclassified.

"A lot of us are members of the local community, and we all tell our neighbors what we do. They are all quite familiar with it. I don't believe it has ever caused a problem to my knowledge, at least not while I've been here," he said.

What the neighbors are told mostly is that USAMRIID is trying to develop vaccines, diagnostic systems, antidotes and protective clothing for soldiers who may be exposed to germ warfare attacks.

"You're in an institute today where the next generation of vaccines to protect people against a variety of diseases that have plagued mankind for a long period of time will be developed," Huxsoll says proudly.

Even though new subdivisions have surrounded the base, only one person has called to inquire about the dangers.

Levitt sees the situation differently. He and his friend are scared by what they see as Army recklessness.

He tells of how when he worked at USAMRIID, he once reported that a line of Rhesus monkey lung cells the Army was using to develop vaccines were apparently contaminated because they were killing two-thirds of mice used in tests. He said their use was dangerous and should be discontinued.

The Army ignored his reports, he said. The resulting vaccines were used on humans. "And it changed my reports, and gave final reports to Congress telling of great progress we were making with nothing about the concerns I raised." He has copies of his original reports and the changed versions.

He also tells of a huge amount of Chikengunya disease virus grown in those contaminated cells that were discovered missing from his lab - a half gallon's worth, with every drop concentrated with more than a billion virus particles.

Levitt said it was sufficient "to infect thousands of people, but the Army did nothing. It just tried to cover up." He wanted a search or investigation, but the Army refused. Inquiries by former Sen. Charles Mathias, R-Md., substantiated Levitt's claims.

Another problem, he said, was that for years, access in and out of "hot" labs was not checked, nor were the contents of briefcases carried in and out. More elaborate security card systems are new and resulted from his complaints to Congress, he said.

Levitt said a fire broke out in a lab containing deadly germs; the fire fighting could easily have spread them.

He told a congressional investigation, "There were no fire or smoke alarms in the suite. The fire was detected by the early arrival of an employee who smelled smoke in the hallways. . . . The Fort Detrick fire department went directly into the suite with equipment to extinguish the fire without regard to the biological hazard of the suite.

"The suite and airlock doors were propped open and water ran out of the suite and into the hallways. . . . Freezers containing virus samples were taped shut and all work ceased for six months while management deliberated over who would clean up the fire damage."

Also until Levitt reported it, the public generally did not realize that the Army and other research labs routinely sent the deadliest germs known to man through regular U.S. mail with few special precautions.

Levitt quit the Army to go public with his criticism. He now runs two family businesses. All his stories are just a buildup to what Levitt says are his biggest complaints about Army germ research.

"It's useless and it wastes money."

"For example, let's say we develop a vaccine against a disease. It would take a pretty stupid enemy to attack us with that disease because there are so many others he could use instead. And it is impossible to have vaccines against them all and for soldiers to be inoculated with all of them," he said.

And new strains of germs could be created.

He says some work to develop better face masks and germ agent detectors might be useful, but other USAMRIID medical programs and their funding would be more beneficial if transferred to a non-military agency such as the National Institutes of Health for use against other diseases afflicting man.

Levitt scoffs at Army claims that germs would only be spread by a remote event such as an airplane crashing into the lab.

"An airplane crash-landed on the freeway here the other year, less than a mile from USAMRIID. So such things are possible. Also, what about terrorist attack, or wild actions by an upset employee? Those things happen too."

Levitt's wife, Carol, says other neighbors have the same fear. "But a lot of them worry about their jobs and are afraid to say anything in public."

Not surprisingly, Levitt and Huxsoll have different advice for Utahns about germ lab work at Dugway.

"I wouldn't worry about it at all. The precautions the Army takes make it safe," Huxsoll said.

Levitt says, "I would fight it with everything possible. It is an accident waiting to happen."