Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Circumstantial Case Against Ivins. Let's break it down.

The following points are taken from CNN and AP stories published today regarding the federal government's evidence concerning Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist who spent the better part of his career working to make a better anthrax vaccine.

The strongest evidence against Ivins is the DNA evidence linking a strain, RMR-1029, that he apparently created and stored in his laboratory. The DNA does provide a concrete link to Ivins' lab, but does it link directly to Ivins himself. Usually the PI of a lab is considered the owner of the strains created in his/her laboratory, even though they didn't physically make them and don't actually utilize them. The lab head typically guides from the confines of their office, making occasional passes through the lab. Obviously Ivins could access his labs' strains, but couldn't other members of his lab do the same? If so, I would be interested to know how and why these other people (if they exist) were ruled out as potential suspects.

This brings me to the next point raised in the articles: Ivins kept late hours during the time that the spore-laden letters were mailed that Ivins could not account for. First of all, anyone who works in a lab knows that keeping late hours is not strange, but I don't know what kind of hours researchers in a government facility keep.
Let's assume for a minute that Ivins was furiously drying down spores during the evening after everyone left. Why is there no mention of cultures of B. anthracis growing and sporulating in the lab? People working in a lab should notice flasks appearing and disappearing, especially in a BSL3. Perhaps his staff wasn't working in this particular lab during this time, or maybe this information just hasn't been released yet.

Moving on...what about these envelopes? According to the reports, they were traced back to USAMRIID. How? I know that mass production can have distinguishing tool marks. Perhaps the envelopes from the attacks contained marks nearly identical to marks on envelopes at USAMRIID, indicating that they were produced at similar times and potentially came from the same lot. It might sound crazy, but I have actually seen this technique used with garbage bags before. Maybe it is something far more simple. I am interested to hear more about how this connection came about.

Finally, the articles site suspicious behavior on the part of Ivins, the most damning of which (in my opinion) is submitting false samples to the FBI during the investigation. The obvious rebuttal here is that people make mistakes. My question is why was the investigative team relying on Ivins to provide them with samples of his strains? That's like asking a suspect to take their fingerprint card home, make the prints and bring it back the next day. Shouldn't the FBI know better?

The other suspicious behavior revolves around text in an email sent by Ivins that stated: "Bin Laden terrorists for sure have anthrax and sarin gas" and have "just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans." Investigators contend that this is similar to text in the letters, such as: "WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX . . . DEATH TO AMERICA . . . DEATH TO ISRAEL." Although I do think the subject matter of the letter and the email seem similar, this type of analysis is way out of my knowledge base, so I don't really know what to make of it.

If this is the proof that the FBI took seven years to come up with, then I am truly disappointed. For me, lingering doubts remain about Ivins and the ability of the FBI to conduct an investigation.

1 comment:

Tom said...

To some extent, I think we're looking in the wrong place. I think the B. subtilis was a larger piece of the puzzle than we realize.

It's all about the contaminant ...