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‘92 Army audit found missing specimens of anthrax, Ebola

Documents also say a lab was being used without approval

SHARE ‘92 Army audit found missing specimens of anthrax, Ebola

HARTFORD, Conn. — Specimens of anthrax, the Ebola virus and other pathogens were listed as missing after an audit of the Army's biological warfare research center in the early 1990s, according to a published report.

Documents from a 1992 Army inquiry also suggest someone was entering a lab at Fort Detrick, Md., late at night to conduct unauthorized research, according to a story Sunday in The Hartford Courant. A counter on a piece of equipment was rolled back, and someone misspelled 'antrax' when creating a label and left it in the machine's electronic memory, according to documents obtained by the paper.

Fort Detrick officials did not return phone messages Saturday or Sunday.

One of the 27 sets of missing specimens was later located in the lab, the newspaper said. Portions of others also were located, but a spokeswoman, Caree Vander-Linden, said she could not provide details because of incomplete records, the newspaper said.

The fate of the rest remains unclear, she said.

Experts disagreed on any potential danger. Vander-Linden said the samples would have been killed in preparation for study. Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York, said she would not rule out the possibility that anthrax in spore form could survive the chemical treatment.

But she said obtaining live spores would be extremely difficult and "an unnecessarily difficult task."

Investigators also found evidence of what they called "surreptitious" work in the pathology lab during late nights and weekends, the Courant reported.

Dr. Mary Beth Downs told investigators that in 1992 she found that the automatic counter on the electron microscope's camera had been rolled back. She was also surprised to find that a previous user apparently had forgotten to reset a feature that imprints each photo with a label. The label "antrax 005' appeared on some of her own photos.

She wrote a memo to Langford, noting that whoever was using the microscope was "either in a big hurry or didn't know what they were doing."

Some lab officials believe the concerns were overblown.

"If you had security clearance, the guard isn't going to ask you if you are qualified to use the equipment," former technician Charles Brown said. "I'm sure people used it often without our knowledge."