WASHINGTON — Military leaders have suspended some activities at biological research laboratories to review safety rules for some of the world's deadliest germs and toxins, including how they are shipped through FedEx and other civilian carriers.
Defense officials said the action is part of a larger review ordered when a researcher at an Army lab committed suicide last month after being told he would be charged in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people.
Navy and Air Force officials told The Associated Press on Thursday that they are temporarily halting shipments of dangerous biological agents to and from their medical and research labs.
They also said that during the review, they won't allow any employees to handle such materials inside their labs unless the employee is enrolled in a special program to do so — or monitored by someone who is enrolled.
The Army also said for the first time Thursday that it had halted it shipments from Aug. 8-14 for a similar review of procedures — and then tightened some.
The Army has six, Navy five and Air Force two labs where biomedical research is done to support counterterrorism efforts, research protection for the armed forces and keep track of infectious diseases across the globe. Employees work with a range of dangerous materials such as anthrax and germs that cause Avian flu and encephalitis.
All such Navy material "is accounted for and none has been compromised. A thorough inventory will be a part of this stand down," said Cmdr. Jeff A. Davis, a Navy spokesman, using the military term for a suspension of activities.
The Air Force, which said its labs handle bacterial, viral, fungal and toxin agent samples, said its samples were all accounted for as well.
'An abundance of caution'
Davis said Navy Secretary Donald Winter had ordered the suspension of activities and review "out of an abundance of caution" to make sure the handling of sensitive biological material is safe at its labs — two in the United States and one each in Peru, Egypt and Indonesia.
Air Force spokesman Maj. Richard Johnson said the same was true for his service, adding that neither of the Air Force labs had made any shipments of dangerous biological materials since 2002, and one had accepted only two shipments since then.
The review also will be trying to determine whether employees who need to be are enrolled in the so-called Personnel Reliability Program — a system that requires personal screening, drug screening, evaluation of medical and work records and then provides for follow-up through evaluations by supervisors, fellow workers and others.
The Army announced early this month that it created a team of medical and other military experts to review security measures at its biodefense labs, including Fort Detrick, Md., where scientist Bruce Ivins worked when he became the suspect in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.
To date, the Army has offered no explanation for how its biosecurity system, which is set up to identify mentally troubled workers, failed to flag Ivins for years.
Officials said Thursday that the review continues and that some changes already have been made at Fort Detrick and nationwide, including an updating of rules for commercial shipments of biological materials by ground.
Concern after anthrax attacks
Companies previously had to have personnel certified by the government for handling hazardous materials and now also will have to provide two drivers for the deliveries — both with classified security clearances, said Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman.
The service also is working on tightening safety procedures for commercial air shipments of biological materials.
FedEx spokeswoman Sandra Munoz said she was unaware of any changes in procedures. Shipping of dangerous materials is common, is carried out by a number of companies and is done by universities, research centers and others in the civilian and military world.
Accidents happen and there have been cases in which shipments have gone missing, been damaged or lost. In one case reported to the government, plague bacteria that was supposed to be delivered to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in 2003 somehow ended up in Belgium and was incinerated safely.
"The issue of properly safeguarding biological agents and toxins has become a concern following recent developments in the 2001 anthrax case," Davis said. "While Navy standards already meet or exceed those of civilian laboratories that handle the same materials, the Navy is taking proactive steps to critically self-assess its programs."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.