FAHS Substitute Mr. Jeffrey Metz Recounts His History with Post-9/11 Anthrax Scare

Posted on November 5, 2020 by

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Everyone remembers where he or she was on 11 September 2001.  But many have forgotten that our country faced a second attack only a week after the events of 9/11.  This was the delivery of envelopes of Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax bacterium) to members of the media and to some of the politicians in Washington, D.C.  It was “weaponized” into a powder that was inhaled upon opening those envelopes.  Five people were killed and seventeen others severely injured from this second terrorist attack.

The nerve center for America’s bio-warfare research is a place in Frederick, M.D., called Fort Detrick.  The scientists there were tasked with the job of identifying the specific strain of the bacteria through a process called Real Time PCR.  This is a painstaking and time-consuming process that is basically trial and error.  Real Time PCR (and all PCR’s) have a very specific heating and cooling sequence protocol.  The problem Fort Detrick was having was that their existing technology only allowed them to do one heating and cooling protocol at a time in one hour.

They went out and searched for a platform that could help them do more than one protocol at a time.  They were in panic mode.  They called my former company, Cepheid, out in Silicon Valley, C.A.  They became aware of an instrument called a SmartCycler and asked if they could please see one in action.  Because I covered Maryland, I received a phone call from the president of the company.  That day I was getting ready to do a SmartCycler demo out in Pittsburgh.  I was told to drop what I was doing and head straight to Fort Detrick in Maryland.  Off I went with my demo SmartCycler.

Upon arrival at Fort Detrick, I proceeded to show them how the SmartCycler worked.  It actually looks pretty much exactly like a standard car battery, but inside that “battery” are actually 16 miniature Real-Time PCR instruments that can run sixteen different heating and cooling protocols at once.  Then there was the real deal clincher.  You could daisy-chain six SmartCyclers together and now do 96 different heating and cooling protocols at once!   Instead of one protocol in an hour, they could now do 96 in 45 minutes! 

Fort Detrick purchased six instruments.  They were flown from California on a military aircraft overnight as I checked into a local hotel.  My job the next day was to install the 6 units and train the laboratory staff on how to run the instrument.  Inside of two days, they had the data they needed to positively identify the specific anthrax type they were dealing with.

About a month later, ABC News got wind of this and invited the president of Cepheid to make an appearance on Good Morning America in New York City to explain how the company helped the scientists at Fort Detrick.  He asked me to join him that day of 15 October, and I gladly accepted.  So, I earned my fifteen minutes of fame (actually more like three to five minutes) that day, when I took my SmartCycler and did a short demo on national TV of what a positive Anthrax looked like on the computer screen.

By Jeffrey Metz

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