As questions have intensified concerning the source of the coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the theories that has been floated (reportedly by the Chinese government) is that the source of the virus was United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID; pronounced: U-SAM-rid). USAMRIID is the U.S Army’s only facility for defensive research into countermeasures against biological warfare. It is located on Fort Detrick, near Frederick, MD. It is colloquially called “RIID.”
Having worked in/with this facility, I know that the Chinese theory is not true for a number of reasons. To better explain this, however, it is worth first giving a very short history on the facility. It was first opened in the 1950s as a temporary laboratory to evaluate the nature of infectious pathogens. It is still the only laboratory in the military capable of handling/containing the most dangerous infectious diseases at biosafety level four (BSL4).
While there is debate on the early work at the laboratory, some of the activity involved evaluating potentially offensive biologic weapons. All offensive programs formally ended in 1968 with the U.S. signing of an international treaty banning biological weapons. The treaty went into effect in 1975.
The activity after the U.S. signed the treaty was focused on identifying and defending against biological agents that could potentially be used as weapons. This was prompted by USSR efforts to weaponize anthrax in the 1960s and 70s.This Soviet program became prominent after there was an accidental release of anthrax from the Russian munitions plant at Sverdlovsk in 1979. As a result, USAMRIID became almost entirely focused on anthrax.
USAMRIID was tasked with an effort to improve the U.S. anthrax vaccine, which was being produced by a public health lab in Lansing, Michigan, and to develop an understanding of the use of anthrax as a weapon. The improved vaccine is still not available, leaving the U.S. dependent on a poorly run biotech company (Emergent) for this vaccine. Despite this failure, RID scientists were very helpful during Desert Shield and Desert Storm in defining the threat from Iraq’s anthrax weapons. Senior leaders from RIID also helped the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) Inspection Team that catalogued and destroyed Iraq’s bioweapons after the first gulf war.
The “legends” around RIID and its research are much more expansive and entertaining than the reality of the facility. It has been portrayed in several movies including “Outbreak” as a secret facility with incredible capabilities to make vaccines and diagnose new viruses. While the facility has some ability to help in diagnosing unique infectious agents, it is limited and almost all of this is well known in the civilian community.
The peak of USAMRIID’s fame came from Richard Preston‘s bestselling 1995 book The Hot Zone which focused on the diagnosis of a hemorrhagic fever virus identified by RIID scientists after it was accidentally introduced in a laboratory in Reston, VA.
In contrast to this hype, the reality of this facility is limited. After the fall of the Soviet Union, scientist from USSR biological warfare facilities were brought to USAMRIID to share knowledge and open dialogue about the risk of biological warfare. These Russian scientists were shocked at the limited size and capability of the facility at Fort Detrick, as they had expected some huge, hidden underground lab for making biological weapons. Some actually mocked the facility for its poor condition and having essentially a “lunchroom” in the middle of the biocontainment building!
Recent times have not been kind to USAMRIID. The downfall began after the 2001 anthrax attacks which were traced back to Bruce Ivans, a mentally unstable researcher at the facility who subsequently took his own life. In 2008 a congressional investigation indicated that security and procedures at the facility needed to be markedly improved. Despite this, problems at the facility continued until a failed safety inspection in 2019 essentially shut it down.
The response to these deficiencies was to develop an entirely new high containment research lab at Fort Detrick. This is the largest laboratory of its kind in the world and would be run by private contractors to the Department of Defense. While it was initially supposed to open in 2019, construction and safety delays have meant that the facility is still not occupied although it is now scheduled to be open later this year.
Sadly, all of this indicates that the USAMRIID had no active infectious disease research facility at the time when the SARS-CoV-2 virus appeared. Also, coronavirus work was never a focus of the lab since it was not thought to be a bioweapon. When the lab was closed in 2019, USAMRIID scientists were working with the bacteria known to cause tularemia and plague, and the virus that causes Venezuelan equine encephalitis, all of which were in a biosafety level 3 laboratory (BSL3). Researchers were also working with the Ebola virus in a (BSL4) lab according to formal reports. There was never a coronavirus program at RIID.
Therefore, in contrast to the Wuhan lab, USAMRIID had neither the program, focus, nor the facility to make it a source of the coronavirus. If nothing else, our own ineptitude provides us with a complete alibi!