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The FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate Keeps America Safe from Viruses

This little-known agency is keeping watch over biological hazards.

On March 30, 2020, Yahoo! News reported on an unclassified FBI tactical intelligence report dated November 13, 2019, that they had obtained. The report described several incidents in which dangerous biological samples had been brought into the United States.

Three incidents

The incidents described in the report include one on September 11, 2019, when eight vials of a clear liquid were found in the checked luggage of a foreign national at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. While the person claimed the vials contained "DNA ... derived from a low-pathogenicity strain of H9N2" handwriting on the vials showed "WSN".

Writing on biological samples
Writing on biological samples Sept. 11, 2019, Source: U.S. Department of Justice/FBI

H9N2 is a subtype of the species influenza-A virus, also known as bird flu virus. The FBI determined that "WSN" was an acronym associated with H1N1 influenza, and had been collected back in 1933. H1N1 is a subtype of the influenza-A virus that was the cause of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.

Authorities at the airport confiscated the biological material, and the traveler was allowed to continue on their journey.

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On November 28, 2018, customs officials at the same Detroit airport discovered three vials in the luggage of a foreign national that were labeled "Antibodies". The traveler explained that he was delivering them to a colleague in the U.S. and that they were from a researcher in his home country.

The report states that both writing on the vials, and who the recipient was, led them to believe that the vials contained viable Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) material. The vials were confiscated.

On May 26, 2018, also at the Detroit airport, a foreign national was found to have a centrifuge tube containing what the traveler described as "non-infectious E. coli bacteria-derived plasmids." Plasmids are small circular DNA strands in the cytoplasm of a bacterium and are used in the laboratory manipulation of genes. The tube was confiscated.

The FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate

The agency that dealt with the above three incidents is is the Chemical and Biological Intelligence Unit of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD).

FBI flag
FBI flag, Source: FBI/Wikimedia Commons

Established on July 26, 2006, under then FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, the Directorate is part of the FBI's National Security Branch. It is responsible for mitigating threats from chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive weapons.

The Directorate defines weapons of mass destruction as: "materials, weapons, or devices that are intended to cause or capable of causing death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals or precursors, a disease organism, or radiation or radioactivity, to include, but not limited to, biological devices, chemical devices, improvised nuclear devices, radiological dispersion devices, or radiological exposure devices."

The Directorate operates three sections:

  • Countermeasures - provides prevention and outreach activities through the FBI's 56 field offices and overseas regional offices
  • Investigations and Operations - provides operational response planning and coordination for field investigations
  • Intelligence - provides subject matter experts who advise on international and domestic terrorism, criminal/lone actors, critical infrastructure, and counterproliferation.

Manmade pandemics

The ability of disease organisms to escape from laboratories has been well documented. The virus that caused the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was an H1N1 influenza virus. While that pandemic burned itself out, the virus persisted, slowly experiencing small genetic changes, until 1957, when it disappeared.

Then, in 1976, the H1N1 swine influenza virus struck at Fort Dix, an Air Force Force installation located near Trenton, New Jersey. 13 personnel were hospitalized and one died.

This triggered an all-out effort during 1977 to immunize every American against this flu. However, after 48 million immunizations were given, complications arose, and 25 people died from the immunization itself.

An oddity of the swine flu epidemic was that it affected only those under 20-years-of-age because older people were immune due to their exposure to the virus prior to 1957. H1N1 was highly contagious, with an infection rate of 20% to 70% in schools and military installations. However, there were only a few fatalities.

When the swine flu virus appeared in the Soviet Union and China, using genetic tests, virologists identified the virus as a 1949 - 1950 virus that had escaped from a laboratory. In 2010, researchers published their findings, saying, "The most famous case of a released laboratory strain is the re-emergent H1N1 influenza-A virus which was first observed in China in May of 1977 and in Russia shortly thereafter."

In March 1972, a laboratory assistant at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was harvesting live smallpox virus from eggs that had been used to grow the virus.

Becoming ill, the lab assistant was hospitalized, but not placed in isolation. She infected a nurse, who survived, and two people who came to visit the patient in the next bed, who both died.

In August 1978, a medical photographer whose workspace was directly above the smallpox laboratory at Birmingham Medical School in England infected her mother with smallpox before she herself died of the disease.

In 1995, an outbreak of Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE) struck both animals and humans in Venezuela and neighboring Colombia. VEE is transmitted by mosquitoes, and it infects horses, donkeys, and mules. In humans, the virus causes high fever, and can lead to epilepsy, paralysis or mental retardation.

In Venezuela, there were 10,000 human cases, which resulted in 11 deaths. In Colombia, there were 75,000 human cases, with 300 deaths and 3,000 who suffered neurological complications.

In 2003, there was an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS. The first case appeared in January 2003 when a fish seller at a market fell ill. He went on to infect 30 doctors and nurses at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.

In February 2003 one of the doctors who had treated the ill man began to feel ill himself, but he traveled to a wedding in Hong Kong. The doctor died, but not before infecting those staying at his hotel, and his grandmother, a resident of Canada.

In all, SARS spread to 29 countries, caused over 8,000 infections and 774 deaths. 21% of SARS cases were in health care workers, which could have a catastrophic effect.

SARS has escaped six times from virology labs, one time each from labs in Singapore and Taiwan, and four times from the same lab in Beijing. The four cases at the National Institute of Virology in Beijing involved a researcher, the nurse who cared for her, and three additional researchers. The cases were traced back to inadequately inactivated SARS virus that had not been properly tested.

In August 2003, a virology graduate student at the National University of Singapore became ill with SARS, but recovered. In December 2003, a Taiwanese SARS researcher fell ill on a flight from Singapore, where he had attended a medical conference. Luckily, none of the 74 people with whom he had interacted at the conference became ill.

The Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate’s assistant director, John Perren, who retired in 2016, described in speeches to Congress that, "What keeps me up at night is not what I know. It’s what I don't know."

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