Anthrax Attacks


After months of bungled investigation, it now looks certain that America‘s anthrax attacks came from within. The implications are terrifying

 

THE anthrax attack of 2001 is over. No more powder-laced letters have turned up in the mail since October and no new infections since November. Unless spores are still lurking in someone’s lungs, office or mail, there will be no more victims.

 

Americans must now decide how to move on from an attack that claimed relatively few lives, but was a huge kick in the teeth for a country still reeling after 11 September. To make matters worse, as New Scientist goes to press, the FBI still has no culprit-or even a firm suspect, to judge by the doubling of the reward to $2.5 million last month.

 

Investigators are virtually certain of one thing, though: it was an inside job. The anthrax attacker is an American scientist-and worse, one from within the US‘s own biodefence establishment. And only now, four months on from the posting of the first letters, are the frightening implications of that beginning to sink in.

 

America‘s experience of bioterrorism was, above all, one of institutional failure and a breakdown in the trust on which those institutions are based. The US had its own bioweapons research turned against it-by one of its own. To add to the embarrassment, advances in the massive investigation so far owe more to the serendipity of a few researchers than to any organised response to bioterrorism.

 

The first anthrax victim was Robert Stevens, a photo editor on a tabloid newspaper in Florida who died of the inhaled form of the disease on 5 October. Even before his death, the bacteria in his blood had been whisked off to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where Paul Keim, a specialist in bacterial evolution, has a collection of genetic variants of anthrax.

 

His lab quickly worked out what type it was. Nine days later, after anthrax had struck one of Stevens’s colleagues and a television station in New York, the FBI made an announcement. The infections clearly weren’t natural, and the Ames strain of anthrax was responsible.

 

Confusion reigned as to exactly what this meant (see “Mix-ups and muddles”). But the crucial discovery, as revealed by New Scientist (27 October 2001, p 4), was that Stevens’s bacteria were dead ringers for an unusually virulent strain from the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland. And USAMRIID circulated these particular bacilli to only a few collaborators.

 

Even getting this far owed much to luck. Anthrax DNA hardly varies at all, and strains have been genetically distinguishable only since the late 1990s. Currently only Keim’s technique, which counts variations in the number of repeat sequences of DNA at 50 different places in the genome, can pinpoint the USAMRIID lineage.

 

Investigators were only able do so because a few scientists happened to be keen on this kind of research, not because there was an organised system for tracking bioweapons. The attacker may not even have realised how precisely the source of his bacteria could be traced.

 

But the genetic trail may now have gone cold. Investigators hoped that samples from the dozen labs holding USAMRIID’s strain would be sufficiently different to reveal where the attacker got his bacteria. They include three US military facilities: the navy’s medical research lab, the army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, and Battelle, a defence contractor based in Ohio.

 

So far, all the samples tested in Keim’s analysis have been identical. His lab is now working with the Institute for Genomic Research in Maryland to try and find more revealing differences in non-repeat DNA. But it’s not looking good-the labs have clearly been sharing the same bacteria.

 

Hope now rests on analysing the way the anthrax was turned into the fine, floating powder that makes it a weapon. This was the attacker’s masterstroke. The five envelopes held just 2 grams of powder each-yet they managed to contaminate a huge area.

 

No one realised just how huge until postal workers started getting anthrax. Two died after Washington hospitals diagnosed flu and sent them home-despite the publicity about anthrax in the men’s workplace. Spores were then found all over the targeted offices, in postal equipment, and even on unrelated mail. Fears that contaminated mail might start to claim susceptible people far and wide seemed justified when two women in the Bronx and Connecticut, with no link to any known contamination, died of anthrax.

 

There was no excuse for not knowing how insidious weaponised anthrax can be. Ken Alibek, former head of the Soviet anthrax programme who now works in the US, knows how it infested his production plants-but investigators didn’t ask him.

 

Canadian biodefence scientists had even measured how easily a harmless relative of anthrax could spread though postal machines when it was weaponised. They warned the US the day Stevens’s case was announced-but their e-mail was ignored, and US officials only found out about their work after postal workers had died.

 

Yet to the expert eye, the envelope opened in Senator Tom Daschle’s office on 15 October obviously contained weaponised anthrax. It even resembled the powder the US military concocted in the 1960s (New Scientist, 3 November 2001, p 5). Its particles were a uniform 1.5 to 3 micrometres across, the optimal size for inhalation. It was highly concentrated, with no debris, coated to prevent clumping, and even contained an unusual form of silica, a drying agent used in the US process.

 

The US government insists it destroyed all its old weaponised anthrax. But in December, an American journalist broke the news that Dugway had been making more for nearly four years under the tutelage of Bill Patrick, who ran the anthrax programme before 1969. It is not clear whether Dugway had told the FBI.

 

The lab had a reasonable motive: to test anthrax detectors, and study the powder’s behaviour. Officials could have used that information to respond to the attack. Yet apparently they didn’t-even though the Canadian research, which could have saved lives, used bacteria weaponised at Dugway.

 

But a clearer picture is now emerging. The attacker used the US military strain, and something like the US weaponisation process. Dugway undoubtedly weaponised Ames. The attacker either acquired 10 grams of the Dugway product, or the recipe for making it. Chemical analysis of the last anthrax letter discovered, addressed to Senator Charles Leahy and opened at USAMRIID, should tell which. If the powder isn’t identical to Dugway’s, someone else weaponised it. Tracing the chemicals used might lead to the perpetrator.

 

One more clue points to someone who worked at USAMRIID itself. A US marine base got a letter in late September, after the anthrax letters were posted but before Stevens was diagnosed, calling an Egyptian-born scientist, Ayaad Assaad, a bioterrorist.

 

Assaad was laid off by USAMRIID in 1997, and was harassed while he worked there. He was cleared of the bioterrorist charge. Barbara Rosenberg, a bioweapons expert for the Federation of American Scientists, suspects the letter was the real attacker’s attempt to frame Assaad by capitalising on anti-Muslim feeling after 11 September. It revealed an insider’s familiarity with USAMRIID.

 

The attacker also masqueraded, unconvincingly, as a Muslim in the anthrax letters themselves. This could be a clue to his motivations. If he wished to scale up US military action against Iraq, he almost succeeded-many in Washington tried hard to see Saddam Hussein’s hand in the attacks.

 

If he wished merely to make the US pour billions into biodefence, he did succeed. And as a US bioweapons expert, he might already be reaping the increased funding and prestige that now goes with the job.

 

That chilling possibility underscores the US‘s dilemma. The attack showed how badly the country needs to improve biodefence. Yet to do so, the US must boost the very institutions that seemingly permitted this attack. That may help it prepare for the next one. But it may not prevent it.

 

 

Anthrax bonanza

 

Is throwing money at biodefence the answer?

 

THE US is vastly increasing its biodefence research in the wake of the anthrax attacks. But even though biosafety standards will be tightened up,  critics  fear  this  explosion  in research may only make another bioterrorist strike more likely.

 

This  week  President  Bush  announced  an  $11  billion  increase  in biodefence funding over the next two years. A lot of that will go into research.  A  whopping  $1.5  billion  is  earmarked  for the National Institutes of Health-five times its current biodefence budget.

 

The  NIH  money  will  pay for basic research into “select agents”-the buzz  phrase  for the pathogens most likely to be turned into weapons, and  for  work on improved diagnostics, drugs and vaccines. Top of the list  come  anthrax,  plague,  smallpox,  botulism  and  tularemia,  a bacterial  disease  of rodents. The genetic characteristics of many of these select agents are poorly understood, and most have no vaccine.

 

But  more  research  means  that more of these organisms will exist in more  labs,  and  more  people will know how to work with them. It’s a risky  strategy  when  the  anthrax  perpetrator is thought to be a US bioweapons  insider.  Richard Ebright, a bacterial molecular biologist at  Rutgers University in New Jersey, fears that skyrocketing research could make bioweapons attacks more likely, not less.

 

Yet  with  such  largesse  on offer, researchers are stampeding to the trough. “The increase in support has engendered a gold-rush atmosphere among microbiologists and molecular biologists,” complains Ebright. At the  height  of  the anthrax scare last November, Nancy Connell of the Biodefense  Initiative  at  New Jersey Medical School in Newark got an average  of  five calls a day from researchers keen to start work with select  agents.  Both  scientists want a moratorium on new permits for handling  select  agents,  and  stringent  safety  procedures in place before  anyone  can  work  with  them-even  if  it means shutting down existing labs.

 

Suspicion  that  the  anthrax  attacker  is  an American scientist has already  led  to  a  clampdown.  US  microbiologists, speaking off the record,  tell  of hordes of government inspectors, from the FBI to the US  Department  of  Agriculture,  descending  on  labs in the past few months,  issuing  subpoenas  for  lab  records, and demanding security improvements.

 

Researchers  also face new legal controls. The USA Patriots Act passed in  November  requires background checks for scientists working with a list  of  toxic agents. Congress is finalising a Bioweapons Protection Act  that  will  demand  increased  security  and containment, and the registration  of  labs,  scientists,  and  the genetic fingerprints of laboratory pathogens, to track any future release.

 

These  new  precautions don’t come cheap. It can cost millions just to improve  containment.  That could drive the research away from smaller university  labs,  even  though  they  tend  to do the most innovative research, says Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax expert at Louisiana State University  at  Baton Rouge. Soon only the biggest labs may be able to afford  the  few  experts  in the area. Some scientists are reportedly being offered six-figure salaries.

 

Mix-ups and muddles

 

CONFUSION  reigned  after the FBI announced that the attacker had used the  Ames  strain of anthrax. Some authorities said the Ames bug was a “laboratory  workhorse”  used  everywhere. Others disagreed. Some were sure  the  strain was isolated in 1932, and used in US anthrax weapons before  it stopped making them in 1969. Yet army research publications said Ames was isolated in 1980.

 

The  date  of  origin would reveal whether or not the anthrax was left over from the old weapons programme. But even top experts contacted by New Scientist couldn’t say for sure what it was.

 

Only last week, after rummaging through old records, did a sheepish US Department  of Agriculture finally confirm that the strain came from a cow in Texas in 1981. It was called Ames because the US veterinary lab in  that  city was the return address on the envelope used to post the sample to army scientists. The inscription “10-32″ meant “number 10 of 32  samples”-not  October  1932 as some people thought. But whether it came  from Texas or Iowa, the important clue is that the attacker used the strain currently held at USAMRIID.

 

While  this highlights the value of knowing where strains of pathogens come  from,  the  Ames  saga  also revealed that no one knows the home address  of  many  potential  bioweapons.  A massive effort to map the genetic  variation  of  the  nastiest  species is now gathering steam, starting with lab stocks of smallpox.

 

 

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