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Anthrax investigation probe underway

anthraxculture.jpgThe 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

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  1. Report this comment

    E. Barry Skolnick, M.S. said:

    “This is a swab… it’s like your toothbrush.

    How many different ways are there to use a toothbrush?

    There’s a lot. How many ways that are effective?

    Probably many fewer."

    — E. B. Skolnick, U.S. House NSETIR Subcommittee hearing

    on anthrax testing at postal facilities, May 19, 2003 (see (a) below)

    Re: Nature blog posting “The Great Beyond: Anthrax investigation probe underway” on July 31, 2009, URL: [http://blogs.nature.com/news/thegreatbeyond/2009/07/anthrax_investigation_probe_un_1.html], in which Elie Dolgin wrote,

    “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.’”.

    (a) Streaming-audio archives of the “Anthrax Mailings” Committee’s 1st Meeting Thursday and Friday Open Sessions, have been posted (RealPlayer™ software needed: [http://www.real.com]):

    Day 1, July 30, 2009, ~49 min, is available at URL: [http://video.nationalacademies.org/ramgen/news/isbn/073009.rm].

    Day 2, July 31, 2009, ~3hr 31min, is available at URL: [http://video.nationalacademies.org/ramgen/news/isbn/073109.rm].

    Ref. URLs: [http://www8.nationalacademies.org/cp/projectview.aspx?key=49105] and [http://www8.nationalacademies.org/cp/meetingview.aspx?MeetingID=3658&MeetingNo=1].

    (b) FYI, I append below the prepared text of my ~7-min. oral “Public Comment” presentation at the NRC “Anthrax Mailings” Committee’s 1st Meeting’s Day 2 Open Session, in which I advocated the Committee’s “science vetting” of the environmental monitoring (surface-testing) science associated with the Amerithrax case, in addition to the laboratory sciences of “microbial forensics”.

    For a broad cross-agency oversight perspective on still-“unvalidated” environmental surface-testing methods for anthrax detection indoors, I suggest:

    Anthrax Detection: Agencies Need to Validate Sampling Activities in Order to Increase Confidence in Negative Results. GAO-05-251, March 31, 2005. Report (119pp.), available at URL: [http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05251.pdf].

    Also:

    Anthrax Detection: DHS Cannot Ensure That Sampling Activities Will Be Validated. GAO-07-687T, March 29, 2007. Testimony (18 pp.), available at URL: [http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d07687t.pdf].

    For some surface-testing methodological “critical review” background, I suggest:

    (a) Written and oral witness testimony of Hamilton RG (in collaboration with Skolnick EB) at the oversight hearing “Stamping Out Anthrax in USPS Facilities: Technologies and Protocols for Bioagent Detection”, May 19, 2003, Washington DC, of the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations (NSETIR), Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, 108th Congress. Hearing proceedings (Serial No. 108-57) available at URL: [http://www.access.gpo.gov/congress/house/pdf/108hrg/89545.pdf]. (Copy of written statement available on request.)

    (b) “Questions on US anthrax tests: At ASM biodefense meeting, scientists say methods are not based on solid science” By John Dudley Miller, March 9, 2004. The Scientist on-line ed., available at URL: [http://www.the-scientist.com/news/20040309/03/]. (Copy available for “fair use” on request.)

    © Skolnick EB, Hamilton RG (2004). “Legacy” Science Suggests Improved Surface-Testing Practices for Detection of Dispersed Bioagents (e.g., Bacillus anthracis Spores) in Bioterrorism Response. Poster P14 presented at the 20th Annual National Environmental Monitoring Conference (NEMC), July 19-21, 2004, Washington DC. Published on-line (pp. 93-110) in the Proceedings of the 2004 NEMC by the American Council of Independent Laboratories, Washington DC. Available at URL: [http://www.nemc.us/images/pdfs/2004_nemc.pdf], as indexed at URL:

    . (Poster content-file copy available on request.) Cited (pp. 130-131) in Chapter 9, Sampling Strategies and Technologies, pp. 120-136 in “Reopening Public Facilities After A Biological Attack: A Decision Making Framework. Report of the Committee on Standards and Policies for Decontaminating Public Facilities Affected by Exposure to Harmful Biological Agents: How Clean is Safe?, National Research Council” National Academies Press, Washington DC, June 2005. ISBN: 0-309-55166-8, 224 pp. Ref. URL: [http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11324.html]; available for full-text on-line browsing as indexed at URL: [http://www.nap.edu/books/0309096618/html].

    (d) “Anthrax testing: look to NASA? Space agency validated spore detection procedure in 1970s, but needs testing for biothreat agents” By John Dudley Miller, April 26, 2005. The Scientist on-line ed., available at URL: [http://www.the-scientist.com/news/20050426/02/]. (Copy available for “fair use” on request".)

    (e) Sandia National Laboratories press release October 25, 2005: “Sandia researchers determine that common anthrax sampling methods need improvement…. More deadly spores may remain after decontamination than current sampling methods show.” Available at URL: [http://www.sandia.gov/news-center/news-releases/2005/elect-semi-sensors/sampling.html].

    E. Barry Skolnick, M.S.

    Technical Analyst

    Upper Marlboro MD USA

    E-mail: [ebskolnick@jhu.edu]

    /////

    [edited for length]

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