From Amerithrax to the CDC Bioterrorism Lab

During my years as a Navy microbiologist, I received training in the rapid detection of biological agents and it became my scientific interest. I became involved in teaching a three day course, among others, on identification of biological, chemical, and radiological agents. I was, in fact, teaching one of these classes, in Wilmington, Delaware, in September 2001. I taught all my classes on September 10, and the next morning, I reviewed the material with the students and sat down in the classroom while the next instructor took the podium. Soon enough we all learned the dark reality.

My lab was ready for possible deployments. I double-checked the equipment though and conferred with special operations and first responders on base. I thought that since the times were bad, perhaps somebody may just decide to use biological weapons.

It was early to mid-October when I heard on the news that a reporter in Florida was diagnosed with inhalational anthrax. Although the media described the patient as an outdoor man who drank water from a stream and slept in wild areas, I knew immediately that the chances of this being a naturally acquired infection were remote. Soon after this we all heard about the letters.

I became very busy overnight. My contacts at the special operations office and the fire department were calling for my assistance in identifying suspicious parcels. I felt very proud when the first call came in and we were out the door fully equipped within ten minutes. From mid-October until early December 2001, my lab was on call 24/7. My name and cell phone number were posted at the emergency switchboard for the Norfolk area military bases. It was a very exciting time. I felt particularly useful and needed and glad to be of service to our country at a time of need.

My unit was told shortly after the New Year that we had a possible deployment coming up. We boarded a C5 on January 10, 2002 and headed to National Air Station (NAS) Guantanamo Bay. I spent most of my time there examining more than 300 blood smears for malaria parasites. Another proud moment was watching the news networks announcing the results of my work as reporters announced that two detainees had malaria-positive smears. Another part of my mission was medical intelligence and prevention of outbreaks in the camp, then known as Camp X-ray. I also conducted BW testing training for first responders and did some trial runs with our equipment.

In April of 2002, I reported to NAS Sigonella in Sicily and from there I deployed to Kuwait on March 19, 2003. Our mission was to fill in until the Army’s TAMAL was operational. I set up my field laboratory for detection of biological weapons, tested my equipment, and waited. We experienced about 30 alarms at all hours due to scud missiles heading our way from Iraq. We finally returned home on June 18, 2003 after exactly 90 days.

The Navy had one final deployment for me in 2005. It was a goodwill tour on board the USS Emory S. Land (AS-39) to visit three countries in Africa: Ghana; Gabon; and Cameroon. Along with my good friend Enrique Torres, I was tasked with lecturing military health care workers on lab detection of HIV.

After a two-year stint at the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland as a biologist conducting research on select agents and toxins and directing performance validation studies for some of our assays, a great opportunity opened up that I couldn’t ignore. A research microbiologist position was made available at the CDC Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Lab and I made the transition in July 2007.

Eduardo Gomez currently works as a research microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA. He became certified as a NRCM Specialist Microbiologist in 2005.

Copyright© National Registry of Certified Microbiologists. Reprinted from The Loop, 2008, Issue 4.