Who Was Bruce Ivins?
David Kestenbaum with more on Bruce Ivins
Burce Ivins worked at the government's Fort Detrick lab on anthrax vaccines. He was questioned by the FBI during its seven-year investigation of the anthrax killings and was involved in the analysis of samples from the mailings that contained anthrax.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The news about Bruce Ivins has come as a shock to some scientists who had worked with him. Ivins was a microbiologist at the Army's biodefense laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland for over three decades. Today, several of his colleagues remembered him as a smart, hardworking and slightly geeky, and they said they had a hard time squaring that with the news that Ivins had become the focus of the FBI's anthrax investigation.
NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Ivins was working on anthrax back when few others were. According to an online medical database, he has published 38 research papers since 1983, all but one on anthrax. Martin Hugh-Jones at Louisiana State University says he wept when he heard Ivins had died. He says after the anthrax attacks in 2001, Ivins helped with the investigation.
Dr. MARTIN HUGH-JONES (Epidemiology, Louisiana State University): He worked exceptionally hard after '01, exhausted himself with the amount of work in his lab. Absolutely exhausted. He was processing thousands of samples a week.
KESTENBAUM: What was he like after the anthrax attacks?
Dr. HUGH-JONES: Much as he was before.
KESTENBAUM: He says they had beers together over the years and says Ivins would never have been on his shortlist of people to investigate as suspect. He said it didn't seem in his character.
Dr. HUGH-JONES: I mean, that's not impossible, but you'd have a guy who's severely depressed, and the FBI put pressure on you, and you commit suicide. Is it because of depression, or is it because of a guilty conscience? And if he didn't leave a note, you know?
KESTENBAUM: The FBI had no comment on Ivins' death. The Los Angeles Times quoted Ivins' brother, Thomas Ivins, as saying the FBI had to come to talk with him about his brother. In describing his brother's personality, he told the Times, quote, "He had in his mind that he was omnipotent."
Bruce Ivins' many years at the lab were not without incident. In 2002, Army investigators looked into a contamination problem where anthrax had been found outside of the proper containment facility. Ivins testified that he had swabbed and found what appeared to be anthrax on a desk but had not reported it. Quote, "I had no desire to cry wolf," he testified. Ivins explained that he thought it best to clean the dirty desk area and, quote, "prevent unintended anxiety and alarm."
David Franz was head of the biodefense lab for six years, but he left before the contamination incident.
Mr. DAVID FRANZ (Former Head, Biodefense Laboratory, Fort Detrick): He was a really enthusiastic guy. Whenever I meet him in the hall (unintelligible) oh, Colonel Franz, let me tell you about what I'm doing. and he was always very interested in his own research, but also Bruce was the kind of guy who was always willing to help anyone. And he was active in the community. I think he worked with the Red Cross quite a lot. I know he was active in his church.
KESTENBAUM: Franz says he also would not have pegged Ivins as someone who would send anthrax spores through the mail.
Mr. FRANZ: I just have no reason to suspect him, and I still don't. I'm interested in hearing what the FBI has to say. So right now, I'm just saddened, as are a lot of my colleagues who have known and enjoyed working with Bruce over many years.
KESTENBAUM: Franz said he knew nothing of Ivins' recent life, the fact that the FBI had been looking into him or that a woman, apparently his mental health counselor, had requested and received a restraining order against him, citing, quote, "homicidal threats."
A lawyer who represented Ivins issued a statement today saying, quote, "We are disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to defend his good name and reputation in a court of law."
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
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Q&A: Behind The Anthrax Investigations
Related In-Depth Stories
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.