Sunday, August 3, 2008

Discussing the media's case for and against Bruce Ivins (Part 3)

I want to take some time today to discuss the different points the media makes public regarding Bruce Ivins' involvement in the intentional release of Bacillus anthracis spores through the US Mail during 2001.

Before I begin, I want to state that my opinion remains the same regarding Bruce Ivins; I don't know. Until I see the actual evidence, which I hope is released soon, I can't render an opinion on his involvement. With this post, I hope to demonstrate that the information presented by the media is not evidence of guilt, but is circumstantial at best.

1. Bruce Ivins stood to gain financially from the aftermath of the intentional release of B. anthracis spores through the US mail by way of money from patents or increased federal spending on anthrax-centered research. Reported by, Los Angeles Times,
If Ivins were listed on anthrax vaccine patents, then one would expect him to benefit financially if and when these products went to market. Any inventor of a process or product that was utilized would benefit in the same way, including scientific investigators. Isn't this a major reason for obtaining patents in the first place? I also want to point out that one quote from a Los Angeles Times article states that Ivins was only going to receive “tens of thousands of dollars, but not millions.”

Many scientists benefited from increased federal spending on research directed at B. anthracis. Some of these scientists were working with the organism before 2001, while many others jumped on the anthrax bandwagon when a significant shift in research money was directed toward B. anthracis research. I also want to point out that money for research is awarded to a laboratory and goes toward paying salaries of post-docs, graduate students, research assistants and technicians, rental of laboratory space and purchasing of equipment, supplies and reagents. Some of this money might pay a portion of the lead investigators salary, but this amount is determined by the funding agency, not the investigator. * Furthermore, since Ivins was employed by the government, I am not sure that the increased funding for his laboratory would have effected his salary the way it might effect an academic investigator working at a university. **

From what I can gather, Ivins potentially stood to gain tens of thousands of dollars from a patent and possibly an increase in salary. Professionally, he might have received an increase in money for his research resulting in the ability to hire more people and purchase more supplies and equipment, all of which should benefit any labs research.

2. Ivins was a mentally unstable sociopath. Reported by CNN, Los Angeles Times
In almost every article I read, Jean Duley's court testimony that resulted in a restraining order against Ivins as well as his forced removal from USAMRIID is cited. From what I gather, Ivins stated that, in addition to purchasing a gun and a bulletproof jacket, that he formulated a plan to kill co-workers. First of all, I think Duley did the right thing by reporting her information to the authorities. If she hadn't and Ivins did murder his co-workers, Duley would suffer severe public criticisms by the news media for her lack of action.
However, I don't know what to make of her claims that Ivins was diagnosed "forensically" (what ever the hell that means) as being a sociopath and a homicidal killer, that he attempted to murder and poison people and that he plots revenge killings. Really? Where are these reports? How does she have this information? If someone attempted to murder or poison someone, wouldn't there be a police report, even if no charges were filed?
Again, an unbiased presentation of the facts would require that a claim like this be substantiated. Why, because validation helps the readers decide how much credit to give Duley. Who is to say she isn't fabricating or embellishing some of this to make her point? Moreover, corroboration benefits her as well.

The claims made by Duley, his treatment for depression and apparent suicide paint the picture of a mentally unstable man, but it does NOT mean that he sent B. anthracis spores through the US mail in 2001? The depression and bizarre behavior of late could be a result of the intense scrutiny of the investigation.

3. Bruce Ivins conducted unauthorized "tests" outside of secure lab areas. (Having internet problems, cannot link right now. Will update ASAP.)
This is another one of those statements that tells you the reporter(s) doesn't have a clue about the topic that they are reporting on. In my opinion this is referring to a containment breach that occurred in 2002, where Ivins disinfected an area outside of a secure lab that was accidentally contaminated with B. anthracis. Ivins disinfected the area and as part of this effort, he performed "tests" to determine if contaminants remained. It doesn't appear that Ivins was at fault for the contamination, but as the lead investigator, he was at fault for not reporting the incident. The actual "testing" that he did would have occurred whether he reported the incident or not. The contaminated area must be cleaned and subsequent tests would be required to ensure that the area was safe and all B. anthracis had been removed. This is common protocol.

4. Bruce Ivins was an organ playing, church-attending, egghead who wore ill-fitting clothes. Reported by CNN.
This is information that might make one believe Ivins did not mail B. anthracis spores to unsuspecting people. Granted, I don't really thing that the news media want to paint a picture of an innocent man, wrongly accused, but if I feel that I must look at these statements as well if I am going to be fair. (Sadly, there aren't very many.)
First of all, going to church does not preclude one from killing other people. Remember BTK? This serial killer was elected president of the Congregation Council at his church.
The fact that Ivins fit the stereotype of a scientist (quiet, unassuming, poor fashion sense) is not evidence either. Remember Ted Bundy? Part of his success stemmed from the fact that he didn't look like a serial killer.

The take home message: Until the evidence agains Dr. Bruce Ivins is made public, there is no way to know if he is responsible for mailing B. anthracis spores.

Who do I think did a good job with this story?
Time. Check it out.

*I welcome any comments from lead investigators with federal funding that might want to elaborate on how allocation of salary from grant money occurs. I know there are several variations, depending on the academic institution.
**I have only worked in an academic lab, so I have little knowledge of external funding for government laboratories and how it would be allocated for salary, equipment, etc. I also do not know how internal money works in these types of institutions either. If you know about this, please feel free to comment and explain.

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