Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bruce Ivins is still getting published

In the Journal of Infectious Disease.
But also in the NY Times.
Basically, the evidence against Ivins is that he was a mentally troubled guy that drank too much. Also, he had the technology and expertise available to produce the anthrax spores sent out. Also, he really creeped out one woman when she was in grad school. Seriously.
Nancy Haigwood knew Bruce Ivins when she was in grad school and decided he was creepy. Then her house was vandalized, and a letter was written to the local newspaper in her name defending a campus sorority. She decided that Ivins had done both those things. There's no evidence, as it was 30 years ago, but because she was creeped out by Ivins, she assumed that he did these things. Later, in e-mail conversations, Ivins mentioned things to Haigwood about her children that she hadn't told him. This is rendered as evidence of stalking, but it seems to me like evidence of gossip.**
Flash forward to after the anthrax attacks. She receives an e-mail from Ivins with a picture of him in an anthrax lab working without gloves. She decides that this demonstrates an unnerving hubris - a very odd conclusion to make from a single photograph.*

o.k. o.k. some of the defenses that I've thrown up of Ivins in the past - that he may not have known how to make dried spores, that he was just a bit eccentric. Obviously, Ivins was in an excellent position to make the anthrax, and he was in some way mentally outside the normal range. You might argue that alcoholism and psychiatric hospitalization, even voluntary, should disqualify someone from working with anthrax. That seems a bit harsh.

But the evidence actually linking Ivins to the anthrax attacks is nonexistant. He worked late prior to the attacks, but on what? The FBI must have asked him, but I don't have his answer. They couldn't match him to the envelopes, the stamps, or the post office in New Jersey. The fact that he takes long drives does not, in fact, mean that he was in Princeton lo that mailing morning.

Remember Steven Hatfill. The FBI's positioning of him as Mr. Anthrax was very convincing for a while.*** As the NYT says, "Dr. Hatfill, too, was eccentric. He, too, had begun drinking heavily as he came under scrutiny. He, too, had grown depressed and erratic under the FBI's relentless gaze. What if Dr. Hatfill had committed suicide in 2002, as friends feared he might? Would the investigators have released their evidence and announced that the perpetrator was dead?"

The reporter is too polite to provide an answer. I'm too worried about a future FBI investigation into me to be honest.**** But you aren't. And you know the same answer applies to Bruce Ivins.

*: There is definitely bacteria growing on some of the plates, and they are definitely blood agar or similar, invalidating any suggestion that he was just looking at media or working with a non-anthrax bug (like E. coli). On the other hand, the initial investigation of anthrax was done by Robert Koch working in an upstairs bedroom of his house with zero protective gear - caution and a lifetime of working with the bug might be protection enough.

**: BTW, if I can find your home address or details about your kids with a single search on Google or Facebook, it's not stalking. It's hardly even research.

***I particularly like that the 'damning evidence' brought over to this article was that Hatfill bragged about having a "working knowledge" of biowarfare pathogens. Imagine, someone actually bragging on their resume. That's amazing. Also, if I can have working knowledge of Drosophila genetics and vector construction, why can't someone else have working knowledge of biowarfare pathogens {presumably he enumerated them, NY Times said biowarfare pathogens}

****: Dressed up in a fly costume. Drank tea from a mason jar (repeatedly!). Liked Iowa. Secretly devout. A momma's boy. History of binge drinking. Once messaged a woman on facebook mere hours after meeting her at a party and knowing only her first name and major. Worked late hours. Worked odd hours. Occasionally handled hazardous materials without gloves. Struck some people as weird. Laughed at odd times in medical school classes. Once came to medical school class with a mowhawk hair cut. Longstanding interest in synthesis of methamphetamine from commercially available products. Previous interest in synthesis of chemical warfare agents from commercially available products. Interest in home microbiology. Interest in home distillation. Reputation for attempting techniques merely to see if they work. Occasionally angry. Hubristic. Questions medical hierarchy. Questions findings of the FBI...

Also, 'working knowledge' of multiple (2) human pathogens (E. coli and a 5 week stint of Hepititis C work).


Anonymous said...

I've been reading pretty much all the blogs about the NYT article you address. I thought your coverage was truly superb and very well put!

p.e. said...

That comment is so flattering that I feel compelled to note that I didn't leave it myself.