By Jody DeVoll, advisor, communications, APHL
Jeremy Corrigan, Humboldt County Public Health Laboratory manager, was having a quiet Tuesday morning when he received a call from a member of the local hazmat team. Workers processing mail at a nearby California state prison had found envelopes containing an unidentified white powder, and samples were being sent to the lab for testing. Meanwhile, 116 prison workers were under quarantine at the prison.
Fortunately, the Humboldt County laboratory was well prepared and equipped to handle this sort of request. As a member of the Laboratory Response Network for Biological Threats, the national laboratory system that protects Americans from serious biological threats, such as anthrax and plague, and from emerging infectious diseases, it is the only facility with these capabilities in this remote section of northern California.
Though the situation was urgent, Humboldt laboratory staff were careful to maintain chain of custody and preserve evidence and therefore did not immediately launch into testing when the samples arrived. Following protocol, they devoted two hours to documenting, photographing and opening the samples, handling them with the utmost care. Then they turned to testing with a time-resolved fluorescence immunoassay (TRF) followed by molecular testing.
The results were startling. Normally white powder samples come back negative for any select agent as so-called “white-powder incidents” are typically hoaxes, but these tested positive, specifically for ricin A chain. Ricin has two protein chains – ricin A chain and ricin B chain – and both must be present to have toxic effects. When ricin is used as a biothreat agent, the presence of A chain usually means testing will also reveal B chain.
Once Corrigan had the preliminary results, he called his Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) weapons of mass destruction contact, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the prison incident commander. This was the beginning of an all-night phone marathon with the CDC, the FBI and local and state government officials. During a short break, Corrigan lay down for 30 minutes to rest his eyes.
Back at the laboratory early Wednesday morning, Corrigan’s next challenge was shipping. To be certain the samples were positive for ricin A chain and ricin B chain, they would have to go to a federal laboratory for confirmatory testing. However, the Humboldt laboratory did not have the materials required for shipping ricin and delivery would take up to two days. Seeing no other alternative, Corrigan placed the order for the shipping materials and waited.
Then came a call from an FBI agent traveling aboard a C-130 military transport aircraft announcing that he would be arriving within the hour to pick up the samples. Corrigan later learned that the California Governor’s Office and the FBI had prevailed upon federal authorities to make their resources available to expedite transport of the samples.
Once at the FBI laboratory, the samples tested positive for both ricin A chain and ricin B chain. The unidentified white powder from the prison mailroom was indeed ricin and the toxin was active. Using samples forwarded by the FBI, CDC laboratories reached the same conclusion. At this point, the acute phase of the incident ended for the laboratory as the focus shifted to the criminal investigation for the FBI and United States Postal Service. While not actively involved, Corrigan and his team at the Humboldt laboratory offered any additional testing support should the need arise.
Corrigan credits the Laboratory Response Network for his facility’s efficient response to the crisis. “The LRN backbone is what allowed us to respond so quickly. We had the protocols, the procedures, the partners, the proficiency and the relationships to handle the response.” He also commends the strong support he received from the county, the health department, the acting state public health officer and the Sonoma County Public Health Laboratory, which handled Humboldt’s overflow testing during the height of the crisis.
According to Corrigan, “The ricin event strengthened our existing relationships and allowed us to develop new ones.” To build upon this dynamic, he is planning a regional training that will bring together Humboldt laboratory staff, local hazmat teams, the sheriff’s department and the region’s civil support team.