Q&A: Behind The Anthrax Investigations

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is located at Fort Detrick, Md. Bruce Ivins worked in a lab there. i i

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is located at Fort Detrick, Md. Bruce Ivins worked in a lab there. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is located at Fort Detrick, Md. Bruce Ivins worked in a lab there.

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is located at Fort Detrick, Md. Bruce Ivins worked in a lab there.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The perpetrator of the anthrax attacks has remained a mystery since letters containing the deadly spores were sent out in 2001. Five people died from inhalation and 17 others were infected by exposure.

The FBI mounted a massive investigation that initially focused on the wrong scientist. More recently, the trail of clues led to another leading biodefense researcher, Bruce E. Ivins. On July 29, Ivins apparently took his own life using prescription drugs. This raises lots of questions. With the help of the NPR science desk and The Associated Press, we will answer a few:

What do we know about Bruce Ivins?

Ivins, 62, worked as a civilian at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) laboratories at Fort Detrick, Md., for 18 years. He lived with his wife, Diane, in a home near Fort Detrick.

A well-respected and award-winning scientist, Ivins co-wrote a slew of anthrax studies, including a recent work on the treatment for inhalation anthrax published in the July 7 issue of the Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy journal.

The son of a pharmacist, Ivins graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in microbiology. He received advanced degrees from there as well.

What was his role in the anthrax investigation?

As a leading anthrax expert at Fort Detrick, Ivins reportedly helped the FBI analyze the anthrax-containing powder involved in the 2001 incidents.

Ivins wasn't the first person from Fort Detrick to be under suspicion regarding the anthrax attack?

Originally, the FBI suggested that another scientist at Fort Detrick, Steven Hatfill, was a "person of interest" in the anthrax mailings. Hatfill's home was searched, he was followed and he lost his job as an instructor at Louisiana State University.

The scientist maintained that he had played no role in the attacks and later filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department saying that his rights had been violated when federal officials spoke to reporters about his possible involvement. On June 27, the government settled with Hatfill for $5.82 million and he was exonerated.

Why did the FBI then allegedly suspect that Ivins was behind the attacks?

All the reasons are not yet known. One factor reportedly is Ivins' failure to report his unauthorized decontamination of more than 20 areas within the Army lab in late 2001 and early 2002. Ivins said he suspected they were contaminated with anthrax spores. The investigation of that incident reportedly raised questions about Ivins' veracity.

Once the government shifted its investigation from Hatfill, the Los Angeles Times reported, Ivins' demeanor changed. He seemed stressed out and, in the words of one colleague, was under treatment for depression. The colleague said that Ivins' access to his lab was decreased.

Court documents show that a judge issued a restraining order against Ivins on July 24, days before his suicide.

A woman sought the order against "Dr. Bruce Edward Ivins," whom she accused of making threats of violence, harassment and stalking in the previous 30 days.

When, where and how did Ivins die?

He died July 29 at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland. Reportedly, he had taken a large dose of prescription drugs, including codeine.

Remind me, how does anthrax work and what makes it so dangerous?

Anthrax is one of the most lethal bacteria known. It can persist in a resting state as tiny spores for decades. Once inhaled, the spores lodge in the lungs, where they rapidly give rise to bacteria that release toxins. Initially, these toxins cause flulike symptoms. But this rapidly progresses to difficulty breathing, due to massive swelling in the lungs, tissue destruction and hemorrhage.

Can you die from anthrax inhalation?

Mortality is nearly 100 percent, although there's some suggestion that fast treatment with antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin can prevent death. Anthrax spores can also cause skin infections and, if ingested, intestinal infection. But lung infections are the deadliest. It was thought that it takes inhalation of at least 10,000 anthrax spores to cause disease, but many scientists now think lower doses can also be fatal.

Why is the anthrax testing done at Fort Detrick?

Located about an hour north of the Washington, D.C., beltway, Fort Detrick is primarily the Army's center for biomedical research and development, medical material management and worldwide telecommunications.

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