Via Foreign Policy, Laurie Garrett writes: It’s 10 o'Clock -- Do You Know Where Your Bubonic Plague Is? Excerpt:
The revelation that smallpox vials have gone unnoticed inside the NIH for more than half a century is gobsmacking. After the anthrax and 9/11 attacks of 2001, every law enforcement agency and government laboratory was tasked by the Bush administration with tracking down a list of "special pathogens," with smallpox ranking No. 1 on that inventory.
Labs across the nation were turned upside down with inspections and security provisions under the 2001 Patriot Act and subsequent anti-terrorism laws. Overall security was greatly increased at all government labs -- especially at the NIH. If any research facility in the entire United States should have passed muster, it was the NIH.
Apparently, not so.
Of course, USAMRIID would prove to be the first lab compromised, as its Maryland facility came under scrutiny for possible culpability in the anthrax mailings of 2001. As the FBI bore down upon the Army lab, it was revealed that dozens of dangerous pathogen samples were unaccounted for; researchers were in the habit of taking samples with them as they traveled or relocated to other facilities, and record-keeping was sloppy, at best. Eventually, the FBI concluded that the mailings of anthrax were executed by a USAMRIID biologist, Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide on July 29, 2008.
As I detailed in my 2011 book, I Heard the Sirens Scream, controversy continues to shroud every aspect of the FBI investigation except, perhaps, one: The fact that USAMRIID was incapable of providing reasonable biosecurity.
The gaping holes in the USAMRIID safety net were all the more incredible given that the institution was involved throughout the 1990s in efforts to demilitarize the old Soviet Biopreparat program, the world's largest biological weapons effort, built largely between 1972 and 1988.
In those facilities the Soviets weaponized smallpox and other microbes, making them deliverable to large populations inside missile warheads, sprayed from the back of airplanes, or in food and water supplies. Chief among this arsenal of life forms were smallpox and anthrax.
The very existence of Biopreparat was unknown to the non-Soviet world until British intelligence discovered it, and then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher disclosed its existence to President George H.W. Bush. By then the Soviet Union had collapsed, Boris Yeltsin was running Russia, and the very existence of the Russian Federation was tenuous.
American smallpox expert D.A. Henderson leapt to his phone to call the White House when he watched on television the tanks of an attempted coup roll towards Yeltsin's quarters, passing the Ivanovsky Institute. Under an agreement hatched in 1978 with the eradication of smallpox -- a pact Henderson had helped create -- all remaining samples of the smallpox virus were to be stored under maximum security in just two places: Russia's Ivanovsky Institute and the CDC's Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia.
Henderson saw those rebel tanks rolling past the Ivanovsky and thought, "Oh, my God, the smallpox!"