The US National Academies has launched its long-awaited review of the scientific evidence used to track down the alleged creator of the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001. A 15-member expert panel met in Washington DC on 30-31 July to determine whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) relied on appropriate scientific techniques when it implicated government biodefence researcher Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide last July as prosecutors prepared to indict him as the person responsible for mailing the Bacillus anthracis spores that killed five people and sickened 17 others.
“It is important that we understand what happened,” Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) told the committee on Friday. “The illogic of the investigation that I witnessed leads me to question whether the scientific and technical steps were well undertaken.”
“This type of study is unprecedented” because the agency doesn’t normally divulge evidence from ongoing investigations, FBI laboratory director Chris Hassell told the committee on Thursday. But given the lingering doubts about the case, the FBI, which has already published nine peer-reviewed papers related to the investigation, according to Hassell, opted to open itself up to independent scrutiny. “This is what we did, please tell us what you think.”
The committee, which is expected to meet around five times over the next 18 months, “provides a critique,” said panel chair Alice Gast, president of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The committee is charged with examining the FBI’s genetic and chemical studies but not “any other aspects of the investigation not related to the science,” she said.
On Friday, Claire Fraser-Liggett walked the committee through the genomic methods used to first genetically characterise the anthrax isolates in her former lab at The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, and the subsequent assays developed to trace the strains back to Ivins’ flask at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. “Ultimately, I think it was really this population genetics approach that provided the breakthrough in this case,” Fraser-Liggett, who now directs the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltomore, said.
Other speakers included Bruce Budowle, executive director of the University of North Texas’ Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth and a former FBI scientist involved with the case, who described how the new field of microbial forensics emerged from the investigation, and retired FBI Special Agent Jennifer Smith, who urged the panel to “continue to probe” and push the FBI to release all the relevant documentation.
In the public comments session of the meeting, Barry Skolnick, an independent technical analyst, called on the committee to review the sampling methods originally used to collect anthrax from the infected facilities. Skolnick said that the committee is devoting too much attention to the microbial forensics. “It’s clear that [sampling] is not in the forefront of their minds.”
The committee’s next meeting is planned for late September.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / USAMRIID