Military Ratchets up Dangerous Pathogen Research at Fort Detrick


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The new biodefense lab will require high-level security and containment measures. Image by

The new biodefense lab will require high-level security and containment measures. Image byUSAMRIID

A Walk Through USAMRIID’S High-Security Research Complex

According to Michael J. Turell PhD, Research scientist at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of infectious diseases (USAMRIID), there are extensive verification and safety measures in place during any visit to the high-security facility.

  • Step 1: Enter Fort Detrick. This takes a federal photo ID and thorough search of every vehicle without proper federal identification.
  • Step 2: Get into the USAMRIID research complex. You must have an electronic identification card or “badge.” A metal detector test is also required and all bags and briefcases are X-rayed.
  • Step 3. “Badge” into one of the buildings in the USAMRIID complex. Badges are required for entry into the every building as well as for moving from one section to another within a building.
  • Step 4. “Badge” into a USAMRIID high-containment research section. Access to containment and maximum containment laboratories (BSLs-3 and -4 respectively) are further restricted, requiring special badges which only allow entry into specific rooms.
  • Step 5: Take off all street clothes and change into a clean set of hospital scrubs. Then, using a personal identification number (PIN) and passing though a biometric authentication surveillance scan, enter an inner changing room and put on a pair of laboratory-only shoes. Researchers working with level-4 pathogens also wear special full-body, air-supplied “space suits” and, when necessary, those experimenting with level-3 microbes work in disposable “Tyvek” clothing and may also be equipped with Powered Air Purifying Respirators or “PAPRs.”
  • Step 5: Enter a central corridor and then into a specific laboratory. Each laboratory is kept at negative pressure to the central corridor so that fresh air constantly flows in; laboratory air is removed through a double HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter before being released into the outside world. Work that might create an aerosol is always done in a biological safety cabinet within each laboratory.
  • Step 6: When finished work, FAX or e-mail study data out of the containment laboratory. All trash, used glassware and disposable laboratory clothing will be removed and steam sterilized through a double-door autoclave and then incinerated.
  • Step 7: Leave the laboratory through the inner changing room. Sterilize and hang up “space suit” if coming from a BSL-4 laboratory, remove scrubs and shoes, take a shower, enter into the outer changing room with a PIN code and put your street clothes back on. Then electronically code out of the restricted area into a hallway leading to the administrative area where the offices are located.

New Pathogen Defense Lab

Importantly, the builders have designed this new laboratory to facilitate drug and vaccine testing. This hits close to home – there are no preventatives or cures for most of the pathogens USAMRIID scientists work with on a daily basis, and accidents happen, especially when someone is working in “space suits” and thick gloves.

Indeed, there have been 21 unhappy incidents at USAMRIID since 1972, including 7 fingersticks; the last one reported in 2004 when a mouse infected with the Zaire strain of Ebola virus kicked a needle through the glove and into the hand of a virologist.

Local and state public health authorities were notified immediately and the researcher was isolated in a medical containment suite with independent ventilation and shower systems. The facility obtained permission to use emergency investigational new drugs if necessary, but fortunately the wounded virologists did not become ill, nor did she seroconvert, or develop antibodies, and was discharged 3-weeks later.

Not everyone will be that lucky.


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USAMRIID: Full List of Publications

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