The based-on-real-life-events of National Geographic’s hit drama series, “The Hot Zone,” are enough to make anyone’s skin crawl. It’s somewhat terrifying to think of how easy it would be for a deadly pathogen like Ebola to spread should it escape from research labs.
Now, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) has been shut down by the CDC over serious safety concerns. The Fort Detrick facility in Maryland is the focal point of “The Hot Zone,” so it’s a familiar location. Research involving dangerous agents has been temporarily suspended until the facility can pass a CDC inspection. While there is no imminent threat from the incident, it is certainly frightening to think about what could have happened.
Research on Hold
USAMRIID is one of just 263 facilities registered to work with dangerous pathogens and toxins known as “select agents.” There are 67 of these agents that range from Ebola to anthrax and the plague to smallpox. In theory, terrorists could weaponize any of these agents to cause mass chaos and death in populated urban centers.
Considering that some, like Ebola, spread quickly and lack a reliable cure, the results could be catastrophic. However, terrorism isn’t the only way people could be infected. The threat of an agent escaping from a lab may be equally threatening—if not more so. Though the registered labs have strict sterilization protocols to stop this from happening, they only work if they are followed.
Not meeting protocol became a major issue for USAMRIID in May 2018 after a flood in the steam sterilization plant caused significant damage to the system. Considering it is used to treat wastewater from the biosafety level-4 labs researching tier 1 agents, a compromised sterilization system is a huge red flag.
The CDC agrees. It issued a cease and desist letter to USAMRIID that orders the immediate suspension of all research involving select agents.
Research at the facility will be suspended until it is able to pass a thorough safety inspection by the CDC. As of now, it remains unclear exactly how long the shutdown will last. However, Caree Vander Linden, a USAMRIID spokeswoman believes it will likely last months.
This isn’t the first time Fort Detrick has come under the microscope for improper practices. In 2009, it was shut down after not accurately listing the pathogens it was storing. Meanwhile, the research institute also employed Bruce Irvins, a lead suspect in 2001’s anthrax mailing attacks.
Fortunately, Vander Linden confirmed that the current incident does not pose a threat to public health and safety. This means that no employees were injured and no dangerous pathogens escaped from the facility. Even so, it seems these labs are ticking time bombs pressing their luck before something goes horribly wrong.
With people living closer together than ever, the threat of a biologic attack or outbreak is frightening. All it would take is a single breach in containment for one of the select agents being studied to escape a lab and wreak irreversible havoc on humanity. This incident serves as a reminder that research facilities working with these agents have a huge responsibility to keep the public safe.