Bruce Ivins's lawyer, colleague share details FBI left out
[Thanks to 7man for the heads up on this]
Bruce Ivins's lawyer, colleague share details FBI left out
by Megan Eckstein @ The Frederick News-Post
Nine years have passed since five people were killed and 17 sickened by anthrax spores mailed to lawmakers and news outlets, and it's been nine months since the FBI closed its investigation into those attacks.
But new information about the anthrax, the investigation and the suspect still continue to emerge.
On Nov. 29, the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation hosted a seminar on the Amerithrax investigation. Experts have spent years doubting that Fort Detrick scientist Bruce Ivins committed the crime, as the FBI alleges, but they have never gathered to share their knowledge and theories until Monday's meeting at the university's Washington Center.
Among those in attendance Monday was John Ezzell, a former researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases who hired Ivins.
Ezzell sat quietly in the audience until a technical question was asked and he stood up to share his insight. He wound up speaking for about 15 minutes in what were his first public comments about anthrax and the subsequent investigation into the attacks.
As part of his comments, Ezzell spoke in detail about how to turn wet anthrax samples, such as the kind Ivins worked with, into the dry powder used in the attack letters. He said the wet anthrax would first have to be put in a centrifuge, which turns the spores into a pellet that is dark brown on the bottom, tan in the middle and white on top.
"The upper part, which is white, is almost pure spores," Ezzell said. "So when you're purifying spores out of a material like (Ivins'), you use the centrifuge, you only remove the upper portion of that, and then you wash it and discard the bottom two colors."
From there, Ezzell said a scientist would have to carefully dry the spores with a lyophillizer or a speed vacuum. The tough part about that process is that either method will cause the pellet to blow apart. Ezzell said that, based on his knowledge of anthrax production and the specifics of the anthrax used in the attacks, he believes the spores were under high centrifugation while being dried with a speed vacuum, the combination of which would dry the anthrax while keeping it in pellet form. From there, a razor blade could chop up the pellet into the form it was found in in the first two letters, which were of poorer quality than the more uniformly colored and textured anthrax in the second two letters.
'Snow white' or pepper-like?
Ezzell surprised the crowd Monday when he said the anthrax in the first two letters, addressed to TV newsman Tom Brokaw and the New York Post, resembled pepper more than the white fluffy powder everyone imagined. The anthrax in the second group of letters, sent to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, were of noticeably better quality but still not nearly as pure as what Ezzell was producing in his lab.
"The spores that were prepared in my lab were snow white, whereas the spores in the Daschle and Leahy letters were tan, and the material that went to Tom Brokaw's office and the New York Post were very granular and multicolored," Ezzell said. Whoever produced the anthrax in the first two letters likely chopped up the entire anthrax pellet instead of just the white section with pure anthrax spores.
"The material in the Daschle and Leahy letters, I don't think that was quite as pure as people think it is," Ezzell said, adding he disagreed with the FBI's assertion that those samples resembled the spores he produced.
Anthrax samples lost
Ivins' attorney, Paul Kemp, who spoke during the seminar's first panel, said the FBI lost or broke a sample of anthrax Ivins submitted for analysis, one of a number of mistakes that he said compromised the agency's investigation.
In the FBI's 92-page report released in February when the department closed the Amerithrax case, a section titled "Dr. Ivins Made Many Statements, and Took Many Actions, Evidencing his Guilty Conscience" describes Ivins as improperly submitting samples of his own anthrax strains to the FBI for analysis. But Kemp said Ivins' did that because no one admitted to him that the first sample had been mishandled.
"These were samples produced by Bruce himself on February 5th of 2002; they were the kind of samples you submit by stirring up the anthrax, not by pure culture samples just going in and collecting anthrax from any of the beads in the wet anthrax, but by mixing it all up so you get all the morphological variants," Kemp said.
The FBI requested another sample in April 2002, according to Kemp because they needed to replace the first sample they mishandled. But Ivins, not knowing the FBI no longer had his first sample, sent in the other type of sample, the pure culture sample that kept each colony of bacteria separate instead of mixing them together.
"They then say that his April sample which they asked him to submit is questionable or suspicious because it was a pure culture sample, not the mixed-up kind of sample where you stir it all up," Kemp said. "He submits the only other kind of sample there is, the pure culture sample. And he submits many variations, many slants of that, in April. Ã‰ He did so timely, without any protest, without any delay."
Meryl Nass, a physician who has written extensively about anthrax vaccines and the Amerithrax investigation, gave the seminar attendees some insight into Ivins' final days.
Ivins overdosed on Tylenol PM on July 26, 2008, and died on July 29. But Nass said, medically speaking, the outcome of his overdose should have been different.
Ivins was brought to Frederick Memorial Hospital by an ambulance early on the morning of July 27. He was under constant surveillance, and Nass said the FBI agents watching him could have, but didn't, inform the doctors that he had purchased two bottles of Tylenol PM a few days earlier.
Nass said there is no evidence that the FBI agents helped get Ivins medical attention quicker or let anyone know about the Tylenol purchase.
"It takes from two to several days for liver failure to occur after ingesting a large dose of Tylenol," according to a document Nass handed out at the seminar. She said there is an effective antidote, called N-acetyl cysteine, that helps the body detoxify the substance created as the liver metabolizes the Tylenol. Nass said death rates from a Tylenol overdose is "extremely rare when this safe, easily available treatment is given in a timely manner."
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