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Healthline Connects
Healthline Connects

Untimely Death of Dr. Ivins, Biodefense Scientist Implicated in Anthrax Deaths

It's called The American Anthrax Outbreak of 2001. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, envelopes containing spores of Bacillus anthracis were mailed via the US postal system to news media and government officials. These 23 cases (19 confirmed, 4 suspect including 5 deaths) were the first bioterrorism - intentional release - cases of anthrax in the US. Multi-state investigations were coordinated via the CDC's Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The CDC confirmed 11 cases of inhalational anthrax and 12 cases of cutaneous anthrax in the period of 10/2/2001 through 3/2002. 32,000 people were given prophylactic antibiotics due to possible exposure; of those 10,300 people completed 60-day antimicrobial prophylaxis.

Dr. Bruce E. Ivins was an Army microbiologist [U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)] working on developing an anthrax vaccine in Fort Detrick's biodefense labs. According to his colleague, W. Russell Byrne, MD, FBI agents had focused on Ivins as the prime suspect in the unsolved bioterrorism case after exonerating another colleague, Steven Hatfill, MD. Representative Rush D. Holt (D-NJ) claims the FBI investigation "...was botched from the very beginning. The FBI did a poor job...". Dr. Bryne has stated Dr. Ivins was suffering from depression and he does not believe he was guilty of bioterrorism. In December 2003, Dr. Ivins was awarded the highest honor given to civilian employees of the Department of Defense - the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service for his work on the anthrax vaccine.

Emergent BioSolutions [formerly BioPort]
(Rockville, MD) manufactures BioThrax - the only FDA approved anthrax vaccine. The vaccine is not available for use by the general public and is only given to "high-risk populations" (military personnel deployed to places of high risk, personnel working in biodefense laboratories, persons who may handle infected animals or animal products). The Project Bioshield Act of 2004 grants the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) $5.6 billion to develop vaccines and medications for biodefense. During the August 2006 to July 2007 reporting period, anthrax vaccine developed under a $242.7 million contract was delivered to the Strategic National Stockpile. The NIH is the lead agency within HHS charged with development of safe and effective products for Project BioShield acquisition. The FDA assures the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

Anthrax vaccinations were mandatory for military personnel in the 1991 Gulf War. DOD reports estimate that 150,000 troops were inoculated with the vaccine but medical records from the Gulf War do not document who received the vaccine, nor the timing of the injections. The Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program (AVIP) for all US military forces began vaccinations in March 1998. The mandatory vaccine program was halted in October 2004 after a federal judge cited the FDA for failing to follow its own regulations. The mandatory AVIP was launched again in October 2006, despite protests over concerns about vaccine safety, oversight of manufacturing and regulations, and informed consent. Reporting and oversight have greatly improved since then, according to the medical literature. There seems to be plenty of anecdotal reports of adverse effects of the vaccine, but they are not supported by the literature.

We may never know who was responsible for the intentional release of anthrax in 2001, just as we may never know who was responsible for contaminating Tylenol capsules in 1982. Dr. Hatfill was awarded $5.82 million in a settlement with the US government in which he charged the FBI invaded his privacy and ruined his career. But to a casual observer, it seems a career in microbiology, especially for those involved in some capacity with government research, has become a surprisingly dangerous occupation. I don't know about all of you, but I am still haunted by the deaths of Dr. Don Wiley in 2001 (suicide), Dr. Benito Que 2002 (Dr. Wiley's colleague - cause of death unknown), Dr. David Kelly 2003 (UK biological weapons expert), Dr. Larry Bustard 2004 (Sandia Labs, helped develop foam for Haz-Mat cleanup of anthrax spores : cause of death unknown).

Thank you CDC for use of graphic.
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