Neil Levitt tells horror stories about how more than a half-gallon of contagious disease-causing organisms turned up missing from his old Army lab, and how he claims the Army tried to cover up the situation.
Such experiences during his 17 years as a microbiologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., make Levitt conclude that the lab proposed at Dugway Proving Ground to test defenses against germ warfare "is just an accident waiting to happen."He said he resigned his civilian position in 1986 to make public the abuses he saw and sued the Army with others to try to improve its safety procedures.
Levitt now runs a family restaurant/antique store but still lives only a block from Fort Detrick which he says produces quality research but still lacks proper security. "And it's one of the better Army facilities.'
He described in a telephone interview how in 1981 he led a team developing what he hoped would be a vaccine for the disease chikungunya. However, the mixture killed test mice, so it was considered infectious and disease-causing.
One day when he went to the freezer, "all the flasks and vials of it were gone. Other viruses had not been touched, but mine was gone."
That was 2.5 liters more than a half gallon of a mixture concentrated with 1 trillion parts per liter of chikungunya virus.
"I'm not sure how dangerous it was. That was the question. It had killed the mice. Chikungunya will make people extremely sick but normally will kill only the very young or old." He said he was worried enough that he immediately reported the situation to superiors. "They told me to forget about it."
He said he even suggested that the FBI or other investigative units be called in to help find out what happened to it. "They didn't want anyone else involved, they just wanted to cover it up . . . . The place should have been sealed up and everything closed until it was found."
The official Army position, however, is that security wasn't that bad. Norman Covert, chief of public affairs at Fort Detrick, said the Army claimed in court that the missing viruses had been destroyed in the lab but that poor record-keeping by Levitt's team made that impossible to prove.
He said transporting viruses safely would also require packaging too large to fit in a briefcase, making the possibility of viruses being stolen remote. "People know that sticking a flask of something in a briefcase is too dangerous because it could break."
Levitt concludes that Utahns should "absolutely, positively be concerned" about the proposed lab at Dugway. It would be a biosafety level 4 lab the most secure rating possible, which could allow testing for diseases that don't have vaccines or treatment.
A second public hearing on a proposed lab at Dugway is scheduled March 22 at 7:30 in the auditorium of the State Office Building, behind the State Capitol.
Gov. Norm Bangerter, who is opposed to the level 4 lab, is scheduled to testify.
The Army says it currently plans to use only organisms with vaccines available.
Levitt said that may offer false hope, because vaccines won't necessarily stop infection of workers. For example, he said he was vaccinated against Venezuelan equine encephalitis. But he later was infected by a new Mexican strain of the same disease used in a lab and became extremely sick for days.
He said the proposed lab will also make aerosols out of bacteria and viruses to see if masks and clothing will protect soldiers from them.