Partial safety ban lifted at Army bio lab, lawmakers say
But Fort Detrick facility remains under cloud amid financial mismanagement allegations
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after restricting for months biological research at an Army lab that had violated safety protocols, has now allowed the facility to fully resume operations, lawmakers said Monday.
The lab at issue is the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID (pronounced you-SAM-rid). The lab, located at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, is taking a leading role in research to develop a vaccine, treatments and testing for the novel coronavirus.
Even as the safety restrictions are now lifted, the lab is still under a cloud because of concerns in Defense Department and Army leadership circles about alleged financial mismanagement at both the Frederick lab and at another Army lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground near Baltimore.
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At last report, about 71 percent of the two labs’ $104 million in fiscal 2020 Pentagon funding had been withheld amid worries about financial stewardship.
The Fort Detrick lab has a history of safety lapses, including mishandling anthrax in 2001.
In the latest setback, the CDC issued an order last July shutting down all the Fort Detrick lab’s work on the world’s most dangerous pathogens, such as Ebola, smallpox and plague. Less lethal but still harmful agents are regulated by the Army.
The problems were documented in a CDC report first published by the Frederick News-Post. The CDC found that a researcher had propped open a door to a room that was supposed to remain sealed while “a large amount of biohazardous waste” was being moved, potentially exposing unprotected personnel in a nearby area.
The CDC report also said inventories of pathogens were not properly recorded, and rooms that were supposed to be sealed had cracks in ceilings and around equipment.
Last November, the CDC reinspected the lab and approved the resumption of its most high-risk work — but only on a case-by-case basis.
Col. Wendy Sammons Jackson, director of infectious disease research at the Army’s Medical Research and Development Command, located at Fort Detrick, told CQ Roll Call in a statement earlier this month that work on the novel coronavirus was not directly affected by the CDC’s suspension.
Lawmakers on the case
Four members of Maryland’s congressional delegation who have been advocates of the lab announced on Monday the CDC decision to lift the suspension entirely. The members, all Democrats, were Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. David Trone and Jamie Raskin.
In a statement, the lawmakers seemed to implicitly refer to the ongoing hold on funds.
“During the current COVID-19 outbreak, it is a relief to have USAMRIID fully operational, and it should quickly receive the funding and resources needed to tackle COVID-19 and other threats to our nation,” Cardin said.
“We fought hard to ensure USAMRIID had the resources necessary to receive CDC approval and get back up to full operational capacity,” Van Hollen said. “We will continue working to support funding for USAMRIID to carry out its crucial mission.”
Neither the CDC nor USAMRIID immediately responded to questions about the decision to lift the suspension.