Hansen: Once-flush bioterror lab tries to stand guard against anthrax, ricin - Omaha.com
Published Monday, July 8, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 11:23 am
Cost of being low-key
Hansen: Once-flush bioterror lab tries to stand guard against anthrax, ricin

The three-ring binders, each one containing its own nightmare, line one shelf in the lab.

Bacillus anthracis,” one binder is labeled. You know it as anthrax, the deadly bacterium that killed at least five people and sickened dozens of others in the upside-down weeks after 9/11.

“Ricin,” another binder is labeled. That would be the powdery poison that a Mississippi man allegedly mailed to President Barack Obama this spring in the upside-down days after the Boston Marathon bombing.

There are other binders, many others, but as I write down their names, the Omaha scientists who run Nebraska's Special Pathogens and Biosecurity Preparedness Laboratory politely ask me to stop. These manuals identify a range of biological agents that could be used — and in some cases have been used — as weapons.

This bookshelf of horrors needs to stay secret, they say.

“We'd let you read this, but then we'd have to lock you up for 10 years,” says Dr. Steven Hinrichs, director of the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, which oversees the biosecurity lab.

He points to the ricin binder. He is joking. At least I think he is.

Increasingly shrouded in secrecy, increasingly ignored by the public and increasingly starved for once-plentiful federal cash, the University of Nebraska Medical Center's biosecurity experts nevertheless continue to brace for biological warfare.

They regard themselves as highly trained firefighters forever ready to put out a four-alarm fire.

But what happens if there are no fires to fight? It's been nearly a dozen years since the anthrax attacks gripped the country. In those dozen years the Omaha lab hasn't identified a single case of anthrax.

And more fascinating still: What if the blazes burn as they always have, but the public — the people the firefighters want to protect — stop noticing? What if everyone decides the fire is no big deal?

An amount of ricin roughly equivalent to three grains of salt can kill a human. A Mississippi man tried to send ricin to the president of the United States in April. A Texas woman — a small-time actress in the TV series “The Walking Dead” — tried to send President Obama ricin in May.

And yet you would've barely known that if you looked at the front page of a newspaper. The first ricin story got crowded out by the Boston bombing, and the second barely made a blip in the 24-hour news cycle.

These stories are ignored, the experts think, because we simply aren't as worried about biological weapons as we used to be.

To visit the bioterror lab, I drive to the Durham Research Center on the UNMC campus, take an elevator to the top floor and am ushered through a locked door. I am escorted into the Special Pathogens and Biosecurity Laboratory through a second locked door.

I walk past security cameras into white-walled rooms where strange instruments rip apart DNA and super-heat liquids into vapors and test whether the substance in question is nerve gas or anthrax or table salt. Finally, I hit a third locked door — this is the Level 3 laboratory, where the truly classified work happens. No, I cannot enter this room, my tour guides politely say.

The instruments that I do see are used to identify biological weapons such as anthrax as well as test for things like West Nile virus and various exotic strains of the flu. Many of these instruments cost the federal government hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy. Almost every one of these instruments cost the med center tens of thousands of dollars a year to maintain.

And yet this lab's federal funding, which peaked at $1.2 million, has been sliced in half in recent years. The lab's med center administrators won't be surprised if it's sliced again, right along with a sister mission that trains hospitals and first responders on what to do in case of a biological weapons attack.

“We are to the point where we almost can't operate,” says Peter Iwen, the public health lab's associate director. “If we have to start turning off instruments, our capabilities will decline. And we're to the point where we're talking about that.”

A decade ago, the cost didn't matter. Tom Ridge, the first director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, visited this lab. Julie Gerberding, then director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, visited, too.

The message was simple: In the post-Sept. 11 era, bio-defense would be taken seriously.

The bioterrorism lab here actually got its start in that post-Cold War era when the U.S. government realized that the former Soviet Union had been producing all sorts of biological weapons that simply disappeared after the Soviet Union collapsed.

“Did smallpox get out? We didn't know,” Hinrichs says.

The med center's bioterrorism lab was well-established in September 2001, when a then-unknown person mailed letters containing anthrax spores to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and several other television networks and newspapers.

Days after the first letter was discovered, the phone rang in Hinrichs' office. It was the federal office trying to coordinate the response to the bewildering anthrax packages, which had passed through an unknown number of post offices. Did they have an expert to spare?

Anthony Sambol, a med center professor and the lab's coordinator, flew to Washington, D.C., where for weeks he oversaw the effort to collect samples at hundreds of U.S. post offices — including post offices in Omaha — and ship the samples to state health labs for analysis.

(After a winding, years-long investigation, the FBI fingered Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist and researcher at a U.S. Army research lab in Maryland, as the alleged anthrax attacker. Ivins committed suicide before he could face trial.)

When Sambol returned home, he, Hinrichs and Iwen built the state lab into one of the dozen finest of its kind in the country.

But two things are now working against the lab.

The first is self-inflicted: Several years ago, the FBI and the med center decided to stop talking about most individual cases. The reason was simple: Publicity around, say, a discovery of suspicious powder — which usually turned out to be harmless — tended to prompt a number of copycat hoaxes.

The med center experts did an investigation that involved cyanuric acid, a toxic component in bleach. They worked with the FBI on a South Dakota death investigation and discovered a derivative of phosgene gas, the colorless gas that became infamous as a chemical weapon during World War I and World War II.

They didn't talk about this, or any number of other cases in which a suspicious substance turned out to be harmless.

Keeping quiet is “not necessarily in our best interest,” Hinrichs says.

The second is human nature. Funding will likely slide and bioterrorism labs around the country will struggle to remain open so long as ... well, so long as nothing burns.

This reality makes sitting in a room with the med center's biosecurity experts both fascinating and slightly creepy.

They bring up the fact that you can find recipes on the Internet to cook up any number of biological horrors.

They bring up Tokyo 1995, when a domestic terrorism group released sarin gas — a colorless, odorless and quite deadly chemical weapon — into the subway system. Sarin, even in minuscule amounts, can cause convulsions, brain damage and death by asphyxiation.

Thirteen people died in the sarin gas attack in Tokyo. Fifty more were severely injured. More than 5,000 people flooded hospitals. It was the deadliest single attack on Japanese soil since the atomic bomb.

Here's the catch: The sarin gas used in the attacks was impure. The terrorist group didn't know what it was doing. Klutzy, says one med center expert. Could've been much, much worse, says another.

We sit inside Nebraska's Special Pathogens and Biosecurity Laboratory and we ponder this.

“How do you support a fireman who prevents fires and never puts one out?” asks Hinrichs as we sit silently. “No one thinks about paying for that.”

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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