The Army’s first biolab changed its mission statement after a report 2014 by senior officials concluded that its work has become less useful since its Cold War heyday and no longer provides medical supplies to the military.
The report, which had not been previously released, was obtained through a state public records request by US Right to Know.
Challenges for the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, come to light at a time of fierce debate about the extent to which research into new pathogens brings tangible benefits. Scientists with different theories about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic have been tangled in arguments over whether certain work on dangerous pathogens can help predict pandemics or pose unacceptable risks.
Located 50 miles outside Washington in Fort Detrick, USAMRIID was once accused of respond to the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program, but ceased developing biological weapons in 1969. He now conducts research on biological threats including Ebola, Zika, anthrax and plague, and conducts research for universities and private companies. It employs approximately 900 military, civilian and contract researchers.
The global biological threat landscape has changed due to gain-of-function technology, the intelligence community’s limited ability to identify biological threats, and the proliferation of “dual-use” research programs that generate pathogens. that could be harmful in the wrong hands, the report says.
USAMRIID has suffered many problems in recent years, including biosecurity violations, the shutdown of its high-security work, and accusations from Department of Defense officials of wasting taxpayer dollars.
The report by government experts, including former USAMRIID commander David Franz, describes an agency adrift as America’s premier biodefense research facility struggled to deliver on the promises of its mission statement.
The report concludes that the lab’s work cannot always generate medical advances and that is not to be expected in the eyes of its funders in Washington.
“The focus on products for the fighter has become less relevant,” the report says. “Because prophylaxis of ‘biological agents’ (traditional vaccines) requires high specificity and a period of at least a few weeks before protection is achieved, the era of vaccines for strength, one of the greatest historic strengths of USARMIID, is virtually over.”
The experts behind the report recommended changing the mission of the military laboratory away from the production of vaccines and drugs.
It seems that USAMRIID leaders have listened.
By January 2015 – several months after the study authors met in June 2014 – the lab’s view had changed on its website from “the right product at the right time for the Warfighter” has a more general statement on leadership in medical biological defense, according to the changes accessible via the WayBack Machine.
“To be the leader in advancing medical biological defense with world-renowned experts dedicated to protecting our military forces and the nation,” USAMRIID’s vision statement now reads.
In the years since USAMRIID consultants struggled in 2014 to prove its importance to the Pentagon, the lab faced allegations of “financial mismanagement,” according to a Defense Department. letter reported by CQ Roll Call.
USAMRIID is one of two Fort Detrick facilities with labs designed to handle the world’s most dangerous pathogens, called BSL-4 labs. There are 14 BSL-4 laboratories in North America.
These labs have come under greater scrutiny amid concerns from Republicans and some independent biosafety experts that the COVID-19 pandemic may have resulted from a lab accident in China.
USAMRIID has not developed a candidate COVID-19 vaccine, although the lab has tested COVID-19 vaccines in preclinical trials, according to USAMRIID public affairs officer Caree Vander Linden.
Vander Linden also provided US Right to Know with a spreadsheet of 43 scientific papers produced by the lab on COVID-19. For example, the lab recently announced the engineering of hamsters to increase their expression of the human ACE2 receptor – a key protein used by SARS-CoV-2 to enter cells in the airways – to enable the study of more serious diseases. Remdesivir, the first therapeutic agent approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19, was also developed with help from USAMRIID.
Vander Linden did not respond to questions about the report and the change to USAMRIID’s mission statement. Franz did not respond to requests for comment.
Morale has plummeted since the deadly release of anthrax from the lab in 2001, the The 2014 report suggests. This situation has been aggravated by the expansion of work on biological hazards to other laboratories. Today, USAMRIID struggles to retain talent. Much of the work at USAMRIID is that of a contract research organization performing tasks for the private sector.
“The concept that USAMRIID is more of an ‘insurance policy’ to deal with the unknown and unexpected than a ‘factory’ to produce medical ‘stuff’ for the soldier should be understood by all “, he declares.
The report criticizes the biosecurity regulations at the Fort Detrick lab, saying the regular presence of inspectors is a distraction.
“The heavy regulatory burden…and oversight in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax letters diverted both funding and human resources from the research mission,” the report said.
However, in the years that followed, serious breaches of security took place at USAMRIID. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported failures to “implement and maintain containment procedures sufficient to contain certain agents or toxins” in biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories, the Frederick News-Post reportedculminating in the closure of USAMRIID’s two main security labs and the suspension of its registration with the Federal Select Agent Program.
Although work resumed in November 2019, Department of Defense funding for the lab remained frozen until April 2020.
The Biden and Trump administrations have called for cuts to USAMRIID. But members of Maryland’s congressional delegation fought to maintain funding levels.
Congress has allocated $130 million for USAMRIID expansion in fiscal year 2021.
While USAMRIID once focused on responding to the Soviet Union, new biological threats are more diverse and harder to pin down, the report said.
“The intelligence community is limited in its ability to identify specific threats,” the report said.
This unpredictability is due in part to so-called “gain-of-function” research, a term used to describe research that can make pathogens more virulent or transmissible.
“Threat agents…can include traditional agents to those that blur the line between chemistry and biology or even those modified by ‘gain-of-function’ techniques,” the report says.
Potentially dangerous biological research is now characterized by “dual-use, low-footprint offensive capabilities that might be found in a few large and medium-sized nation states,” according to the report.
Two of the authors of the 2014 report — Franz and former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell — have ties to the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance. under investigation for his gain-of-function work on coronaviruses with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Colwell is a member of the board of directors, while Franz was a promoter of the organization, according to a social media post from 2019.
Other consultants who co-authored the report include former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig; former Deputy Commander-in-Chief of United States Strategic Command Robert Hinson; former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority Carol Linden; and former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Dennis J. Reimer; executive director of the Maryland Biotechnology Center Judy Britz; Distinguished Scholar at National Defense University Seth Carus; David Walt, Harvard professor of biologically-inspired engineering; and NIH researcher Richard Whitley.