WASHINGTON — The Army’s Fort Detrick, home to a leading biological research facility, has gained newfound attention because the Trump administration has tapped the lab to help develop a vaccine, treatments and testing equipment for the novel coronavirus.
But the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, is under a cloud.
Some of its work was shut down last year over safety lapses, and those projects are only slowly restarting. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper visited the facility, about 50 miles northwest of the nation’s capital, two weeks ago and told reporters he was confident the scientists he met with are among the world’s best equipped to take on the coronavirus.
“If anybody knows how to do it, they know how to do it,” Esper said.
But Esper did not mention that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees the portion of the lab’s work that involves the world’s most dangerous biological agents, shut those projects down last summer. Fort Detrick is still stinging from earlier disclosures of safety lapses, shortfalls that were mirrored to some extent at other military research labs.
The problems at USAMRIID have included anthrax escaping in 2001 from secure areas and then, in 2008, the FBI’s allegation that Bruce Ivins, one of the lab’s scientists, was the chief suspect in the mailing of anthrax samples to famous Americans in 2001. Five people were killed by those letters, and Ivins later committed suicide.
Nonetheless, the Fort Detrick lab now has an opportunity to show that those problems are behind it as it takes on the world’s biggest crisis.