The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restored full operating capability to all U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) labs at Fort Detrick, Maryland, last week following a shutdown last July of some high-level facilities out of safety concerns.
The CDC cleared USAMRIID's Level 3 and 4 laboratories -- those where the world's most dangerous pathogens are studied -- for full operations March 27. The labs had been operating under partial capacity since last November, following a cease-and-desist order issued last July by the CDC over lapses in biosafety standards.
Army officials said the biosafety lapses could be attributed to "failure of Fort Detrick's steam sterilization plant."
USAMRIID has a new chemical system for treating laboratory wastewater.
The clearance allows the laboratories, where researchers have conducted groundbreaking research on deadly viruses such as Ebola and Marburg, to resume a "full scope of research on infectious diseases," according to Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, who issued a news release Tuesday announcing the CDC decision.
"USAMRIID conducts vital research on the spread and containment of infectious diseases. As we continue to battle the coronavirus outbreak, ensuring their ability to work at full capacity is more important now than ever," Van Hollen said.
Army officials said April 1 that the shutdown did not have any impact on the institute's research on the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 illness.
They added that work continues at USAMRIID and elsewhere in the Army to study countermeasures for the novel coronavirus.
"U.S. Army researchers were critical during the SARS epidemic, the Zika virus and the Ebola outbreak as they helped develop antivirals and vaccines," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said. "They've done it before, and they will do it again."
USAMRIID is the Defense Department's lead research facility on biological defense, supporting the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Joint Science and Technology Office for Chemical and Biological Defense.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, called the CDC's decision to grant the labs full operational capability "a relief."
"It should quickly receive the funding and resources needed to tackle COVID-19 and other threats to our nation," he said, referring to a Pentagon decision in February to withhold $104 million from Fort Detrick and Aberdeen Proving Ground, another installation in Maryland that houses the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense.
Defense Department officials did not give a reason for withholding the money from the facilities.
As of Monday, the Pentagon reported 633 service members among 1,087 total cases of COVID-19 within the Defense Department community. Four DoD personnel, including one service member, have died from the illness.
According to Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. had nearly 204,000 cases as of April 1, with 4,476 deaths.
USAMRIID employs about 750 military personnel, civilians and contractors, including 200 doctoral-level researchers in clinical and veterinary medicine, microbiology, biochemistry, pathology, toxinology, molecular biology, immunology and virology who conduct research on vaccines, drugs and diagnostics for the world's biggest health threats.
"The true heroes in this fight are the medical professionals -- people like the scientists and researchers at USAMRIID," Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said. "They're working on vaccinations, treatments and better ways to conduct tests that will ultimately help the nation defeat the virus."
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at email@example.com.