Biodefense’s USAMRIID Problem
Biohazards bring out the weird in people.
Especially people from USAMRIID—the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.
The quote about Dustin Hoffman comes from Tales from Development Hell (Titan Books, London: 2003), a book by David Hughes that recounts the tortured path that movie projects can take from sure-fire properties to triumph, failure, or terminal residence in the soul-sapping limbo of…development hell.
One of the more entertaining chapters concerns the frantic race between Fox and Warner Brothers to make the first Ebola virus thriller.
Fox had prestige and science on its side, having purchased the rights to Crisis in the Hot Zone, the lauded non-fiction account by the New Yorker’s Richard Preston of a successful effort to contain an Ebola outbreak in a monkey house in Virginia. The producers also obtained the cooperation of the key scientific protagonists in the story—scientists Nancy Jaax and Karl Johnson.
Howwever, Fox’s Tiffany Ebola project, The Hot Zone, never got made. It lost out to the flashy cubic zirconia of Warner Brothers’ Outbreak, a by-the-numbers biothriller directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Dustin Hoffman.
Hughes quotes an interview with Entertainment Weekly, in which Preston poured scorn on Outbreak:
“It just wasn’t scary. You have scabs that look like Gummi bears. The blood was put on with an eyedropper. In a real [Ebola attack], the men bleed out of their nipples. I would have liked to see Hoffman bleed out of his nipples.”
However, judging from Hughes’ account, Warner Brothers got the movie-making business right and Fox got it wrong. And what Fox got wrong was excessive loyalty to Preston’s book.
Outbreak, an efficient and compelling science fact/fiction thriller with gory and involving scenes of an exploding epidemic, martial law, and desperate scientific detective work that saves humanity, opened in 1995 and pulled in a more than respectable $187 million at the global box office.
The Hot Zone, a fictionalized docudrama that would have featured scenes of scientists earnestly centrifuging blood samples with coathangers and climaxed with the offscreen massacre of a warehouse full of monkeys, lacked the compelling narrative and dramatic core necessary to satisfy the finicky talent actually making the picture.
Ridley Scott was going to direct; he had his ideas and his screenwriters. Robert Redford was going to star; he had his ideas and his screenwriter. Scott and Redford couldn’t get on the same page. And everybody was too invested in respecting Preston’s book to take the momentous and perhaps necessary step of throwing it out the window and punching up the script with some gratuitous nipple-bleeding action.
So The Hot Zone never got made.
But it lives on, both in development hell and in the pages of Hughes’ book.
Hughes’ book also includes this interesting quote from The Hot Zone’s screenwriter, James Hart:
“I went to USAMRIID, and to a person, the biggest problem—and I want to make sure this is said right—the biggest problem they had with the Ebola outbreak at the monkey house was the fact that no human being died. If one human being had died, it would have moved their cause for prevention and preparation for these kinds of outbreaks forward in the government’s mind…So what they wished had happened—and it’s a horrible thing to say – was that a person had died of Ebola brought over here by monkeys, so it would give them the strength and ‘go juice’ to go get government funding…”[emphasis in original]
Possibly this plaintive lament has an eerie resonance for China Matter’s informed and discerning readers.
Can’t pin it down? Let me help.
“I think a lot of good has come from it,” he told ABCNEWS. “From a biological or a medical standpoint, we’ve now five people who have died, but we’ve put about $6 billion in our  budget into defending against bioterrorism.”
That was David Franz, the former bioweapons commander at USAMRIID’s Fort Detrick, speaking in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks—which he devoted considerable effort to trying to pin on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Of course, subsequent investigations showed that the most likely source for the spores was Franz’s own lab, in which some of the world’s deadlier substances were manipulated both by dedicated scientists and an unknown number of careless technicians, racists, and psychologically unbalanced individuals, apparently including at least one person who thought that the best way to protect America was to selectively kill off a few Americans.
The DoJ’s October 31, 2007 request for a search warrant on Dr. Bruce Ivins, the USAMRIID scientists who was officially tagged as the Amerithrax perpetrator after his suicide, makes for interesting reading. Hey, did you know the FBI thinks it can link a piece of Scotch tape to the roll it came from?
I suppose it could be argued that the deceased Ivins was smeared as a convenient fall guy for an investigation that had dragged on inconclusively for seven years.
But I don’t think that the U.S. government would be eager to build its case as the steward of the world’s most dangerous microbes by fabricating allegations that one of its key bioweapons researchers stayed on the job for years despite evidence that he was absolutely nuts–or that he took his work home to punish the perceived American enemies of his staunchly pro-life Catholic/national-security Republican worldview.
According to Ivins’ own e-mails cited in the warrant, he was already undergoing psychiatric counseling in 2000 and the diagnosis pointed to a “paranoid personality disorder”.
“I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind. It’s hard enough sometimes controlling my behavior. When I’m being eaten alive inside, I always try to put on a good front here at work and at home, so I don’t spread the pestilence. . . .I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there’s nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs.”
Things did not get better after 9/11.
September 26, 2001, “Of the people in my [counseling] “group,” everyone but me is in the depression/sadness/flight mode for stress. I’m really the only scary one in the group. … my reaction to the WTC/Pentagon events is far different. Of course, I don’t talk about how I really feel with them – it would just make them worse. Seeing how differently I reacted than they did to the recent events makes me ratify [sic] think about myself a lot.”
Ivins shared a poem with a friend in December 2001:
I’m a little dream-self, short and stout.
I’m the other half of Bruce – when he lets me out.
When I get all steamed up, I don’t pout.
I push Bruce aside, them I’m Free to run about!
Hickory dickory Doc – Doc Bruce ran up the clock.
But something then happened in very strange rhythm.
His other self went and exchanged places with him.
So now, please guess who
Is conversing with you.
Hickory dickory Doc!
Bruce and this other guy, sitting by some trees,
It’s like having two in one.
Actually it’s rather fun!”
One does wonder why it took almost six years to get a warrant to search this guy’s house.
Bruce Ivins sure served up the wrong kind of scary for a biodefense lab hoping to hype its budget.
To date, the anthrax attacks that apparently emanated from Fort Detrick represent the only proven case of anti-American bioterrorism.
In fact, one might argue that the best way to protect Americans might be to close down Fort Detrick instead of funding it.
It looks like the U.S. government has done the next best thing—funneling that multi-billion dollar bioterrorism bonanza into the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ biodefense programs and resources at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while shunting the dysfunctional and demoralized USAMRIID to the sidelines.
The insular culture of USAMRIID seems diametrically opposite of the mindset needed to manage biohazards in a free society.
People with long memories might recall a pre-9/11 outbreak of an disease that claimed multiple human victims in the United States: the hantavirus episode that killed forty five largely Navajo inhabitants of Four Corners, New Mexico in 1993-95.
New Mexico HPS hantavirus had an impressive mortality rate of 50%, Furthermore, it’s delivered just like USAMRIID’s favorite boogeyman—weapons-grade anthrax.
HPS is transmitted as a microscopic and highly infectious pulmonary aerosol, albeit generated prosaically from the urine and feces of infected rodents, not engineered in military laboratories by delusional scientists with too much time on their hands.
However, this lethal incident didn’t serve as USAMRIID’s ticket to the institutional and budgetary bigtime.
HPS attacked anonymous victims in one of the poorest and most remote parts of the United States, not the movers and shakers in Washington or the media types who chronicled them.
And it wasn’t bioterrorism.
So the CDC handled it.
Perhaps because hyping a biohazard is antithetical to the CDC’s basic mission of keeping the lid on and preventing public panic, its response to HPS provides an interesting contrast to USAMRIID’s near palpable PR desperation:
The CDC on Four Corners:
Taking a calculated risk, researchers decided not to wear protective clothing or masks during the trapping process [to capture and identify the rodent vectors]. “We didn’t want to go in wearing respirators, scaring…everybody,” John Sarisky, an Indian Health Service environmental disease specialist said.
I feel utterly confident in completing the elided phrase as “scaring the shit out of everybody”.
Compare and contrast with James Hart, sympathetically explaining the Hollywood/biowar synergies of the The Hot Zone gang:
All they [USAMRIID] wanted to do was scare the shit out of the public, so they’d have some more juice to go back to Congress and get more funding…
There’s an interesting contrast between how a public health organization—relying on transparency to achieve a relationship of trust with the public in order to manage an outbreak—and a bioweapons outfit—thriving on secrecy, threatened by exposure, and eager to exploit an outbreak in order to seize control of a situation and extend its budgetary and executive reach—handle a crisis.