Army disease fighters on overtime Desert Shield work tests Fort Detrick researchers


An Evening Sun story Tuesday about Fort Detrick's research into protection against biological weapons neglected to mention that although the United States had once made the anthrax virus into a biological weapon, all American biological weapons stockpiles were destroyed in the early 1970s as part of an international treaty obligation. The Evening Sun regrets the error.

FORT DETRICK -- When American troops went to Saud Arabia in August, researchers at Fort Detrick had to work fast to provide enough disease diagnostic kits, and train enough medical personnel to use them, so that soldiers in the field could be tested for diseases that might infect them naturally or through a biological weapons assault.

This and other demands of the Desert Shield operation have lengthened the work days of the 600-member staff of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, headquartered at Fort Detrick.

"Rather than the normal 10-hour days, we're putting in 12-hour days," said Lt. Col. James Leduc, who heads the department of epidemiology here.

The mission of the research institute at Fort Detrick has always been to develop and improve ways of fighting diseases that American soldiers might encounter anywhere they go. The Desert Shield deployment has focused much of the staff's work on diseases that are endemic to the Middle East, or that can be spread from an airplane delivering a virus through a spray or bomb.

One such disease is anthrax. People can get it from infected animals, or from a biological weapon. The American military has made it into a weapon, Leduc said, the Iraqi military probably has the same capability.

At the time of the Desert Shield deployment, the research institute had recently simplified its laboratory test technology for anthrax and other diseases into a kit that fits into a 1-foot-square box.

Instead of doing a three-hour lab test, using "pieces of equipment that are somewhat bulky and unwieldy," Leduc said, the field medical technician dips a cue tip into a soldier's blood sample and lodges the cue tip in a small plastic packet, which exposes the sample to antibodies that fight the disease. Within a half hour, the results appear -- in the form of a pinprick-size red dot at the back of the packet if the antibodies have picked up the disease in the sample.

These tests are already being used in Saudi Arabia any time a soldier comes down with an illness that appears to be endemic to the region, Leduc said.

As the deployment began, a private contractor quickly filled a bulk order to produce more diagnostic field kits. Leduc won't disclose the number, but said the job now is to ensure any necessary resupply.

Since Desert Shield, other researchers at the institute have also focused attention on improving vaccines for diseases that might threaten the deployed troops. Some vaccines may need to become more effective, or trimmed of their side effects, said Col. Ronald Williams, who took command of the research institute on Sept. 20.

Meanwhile, long-term research projects that may not apply to Desert Shield have to keep going, but at a slower pace. The researchers "have put that right on top of everything else they're doing," Williams said. "We're just adding work onto already ongoing projects."

He worries most about keeping the staff and budget to carry the extra workload. His staff is already drawing contingency plans -- for doing the same work or more, in case a cut in the Pentagon budget slices through to Fort Detrick. "We're worried about it."

There was no time to prepare for the demands of Desert Shield, he said. "One day we all woke up, and here we were. Kuwait had been invaded, and a lot of people's lives changed."

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