The institute, which remains the nation's lead biodefense research laboratory, acquired its present name in 1969 as the United States was dismantling its offensive biological warfare research program at Fort Detrick. However, its roots extend back to 1955, when a research project called "CD-22" began.
CD-22 was the first study to be conducted under a unique program called "Operation Whitecoat." This program was designed to determine the extent to which humans are susceptible to infection with biological warfare agents to develop vaccines and treatments.
In some studies, Army volunteers were exposed to potentially serious but treatable diseases, like Q fever and tularemia, in order to understand how these illnesses affected the body. To protect the study participants, the project was carefully managed by the U.S. Army Medical Unit--the agency that later became USAMRIID--under the direction of the Army Surgeon General. Throughout the program's history, from 1954 to 1973, there were no fatalities and no long-term injuries among Whitecoat volunteers.
"Informed consent" model
Operation Whitecoat served as a model for the ethical use of human subjects in research, according to Col. Arthur O. Anderson, M.D., chief of USAMRIID's Office of Human Use and Ethics. In particular, the process of "informed consent"--by which research subjects become familiar with the purpose and scope of a study to understand the risks involved before agreeing to participate--was successfully implemented from the program's inception.
Each medical investigator prepared a protocol that was extensively reviewed and modified to comply with each of the 10 ethical principles of the Nuremberg Code. When the committee determined that ethical requirements and scientific validity were assured, it was approved by Army officials. Next, potential volunteers were briefed as a group on the approved protocol and attended a project interview with the scientist where they could ask questions about the study. Informed consent documents would be signed after an obligatory waiting period that ranged from 24 hours to four weeks, depending on the presumed risks of the study. The volunteer was encouraged to discuss the study with family members, clergy and his personal physician before making a final decision.
"By allowing sufficient time and opportunity for the risks, conduct and potential benefits of the study to be understood, this three-stage informed consent process assured that participation was truly voluntary," Anderson said. Whitecoat Soldiers were not required to participate in any of the studies, only to be present for protocol briefings. In fact, about 20 percent of the men did not participate in any studies during their tenure at Fort Detrick.
Operation Whitecoat volunteers largely consisted of Seventh-Day Adventists, who were trained as medics but whose religious convictions forbade combat. Under an agreement between the Army and church leaders, about 2,300 of these men fulfilled their military obligation by electing to serve with Operation Whitecoat. The program itself was never secret, although some of the volunteers held jobs elsewhere at Fort Detrick where their work was secret.
In total, about 150 studies of the diagnosis prevention, and treatment of various diseases were completed during the Whitecoat years. Volunteers were exposed to disease-causing agents, such as Q fever and tularemia, under strict protocols to study immunity to disease and conduct drug therapy studies, according to Anderson. Later studies of staphylococcal enterotoxins were included among the high risk exposures. Whitecoat volunteers also participated in safety and immunogenicity studies of inactivated or attenuated vaccines designed for protection against Venezuelan equine encephalitis, plague, tularemia, Q fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Rift Valley fever.
Q Fever and the "Eight Ball"
The first Whitecoat study, CD-22, was conducted using Coxiella burnetti, the pathogen that causes Q fever. It was regarded as acceptable to use in human studies for two reasons: its severity could be controlled with careful metering of the dose, and it responded rapidly to treatment with antibiotics. But before human volunteers could be exposed, Phase I animal studies were conducted to gather data on safety and protective efficacy of the Q fever vaccine.
Anderson, who serves as USAMRIID's unofficial historian and has extensively reviewed the Operation Whitecoat records, also has conducted interviews with many of the volunteers and investigators involved in the program.
"These people were dedicated to making sure that no one would be harmed," Anderson said. "They clearly understood both the danger and the significance of embarking on this kind of experiment."
On Jan. 25, 1955, the first Whitecoat volunteers were exposed with the use of the one-million-liter sphere commonly known as the "Eight Ball." This research device, which is still standing at Fort Detrick, was designed to allow simultaneous exposure of humans and laboratory animals to carefully controlled numbers of organisms by the aerosol, or inhalation, route.
Over the next two months, the minimal infectious dosage to be employed in human field trials was determined, as was the effectiveness of the Q fever vaccine in protecting volunteers exposed under carefully controlled laboratory conditions using a cloud chamber. After completion of this second phase of the study, preparation for phases III and IV was initiated. Phase III was a field study using animals, while phase IV would expose humans to a Q fever aerosol under field conditions that mimicked a biological warfare event. These studies were conducted at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.
Benefits of Whitecoat research
Several vaccines were developed as a result of Operation Whitecoat, according to project records. Many of these vaccines are used today by industry and laboratory workers, including USAMRIID personnel who receive special immunizations to work in Biosafety Level 3 containment laboratories. Licensed vaccines (approved by the Food and Drug Administration) include those for yellow fever and hepatitis. Investigational new drug vaccines, used under approved clinical protocols for research or immunization of laboratory personnel, include those for Q fever, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, Rift Valley fever and tularemia.
"In addition to the advances made in vaccine development," Anderson said, "Operation Whitecoat contributed to a better understanding of the signs, symptoms and clinical parameters of biological warfare pathogens in human disease."
Research conducted during the Whitecoat years at Fort Detrick also contributed to the development of equipment and procedures that established the standard for laboratory biosafety throughout the world. Biological safety cabinets with laminar flow hoods, "hot suites" with differential air pressure to contain pathogens, decontamination procedures, prototype fermentors, incubators, refrigerated centrifuges, particle sizers and other types of specially fabricated laboratory equipment provided enormous value to the scientific community and to the pharmaceutical industry.
Many of the same techniques and systems developed to ensure worker safety while handling hazardous materials are in use today to sustain life in patients with immune deficiencies or immunosuppression. This includes burn patients, AIDS patients, transplant recipients and people with primary immunodeficiency, such as the famous case of the "boy in a bubble."
Operation Whitecoat ended in 1973 when the draft was eliminated, but the need to progress in development of medical countermeasures resulted in establishment of the Medical Research Volunteer Subject program during the period of the "All Volunteer Army." Essentially, this program was identical to Operation Whitecoat in that the Medical Research Volunteer Subjects were Soldier trainees in 91B combat medic training school at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, when they were recruited to serve. Unlike the Whitecoats, the Medical Research Volunteer Subjects were not Seventh-Day Adventists nor were they conscientious objectors subject to the draft. The Medical Research Volunteer Subject program continued under Anderson's oversight after he was appointed chairman of the USAMRIID Human Use Committee in 1975.
"This program continues to look after the welfare of participants," Anderson noted. "For example, periodic long-term follow-up studies have been conducted to assure that former volunteers have remained healthy as the years passed since their participation."
One major study, conducted by White et al, was published in 1974. Most recently, Col. Phillip R. Pittman, M.D., chief of USAMRIID's Division of Medicine, completed a long-term follow-up study of Fort Detrick workers who received multiple immunizations to protect them from the risk of laboratory acquired infections. That study also was extended to Operation Whitecoat volunteers, whose immunization histories usually were more limited to the two- or three-year period of their assignment to Fort Detrick between 20 and 40 years ago.
"As the National Interagency Biodefense Campus gets underway," Anderson said, "USAMRIID is well positioned to continue to be a leader in the capability to perform ethical and scientifically valid research involving human subjects. In this age of bioterrorism, our research will benefit warfighters and civilians alike."
The National Interagency Biodefense Campus is an area at Fort Detrick where federal agencies will co-locate laboratories that support the nation's biodefense research program. As currently planned, the campus will include USAMRIID as well as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security.