The Blog

Remember Anthrax?

Part 2

12:00 AM, Apr 20, 2002 • By DAVID TELL
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No. The bacterial culture that Army biologist Gregory Knudson called "Ames" in 1981 came from a 14-month-old, 700-pound Beefmaster heifer that had recently died on a ranch in Jim Hogg County, Texas. So far as modern science can determine, an identical form of anthracis continues to widely contaminate the soil in south Texas. In 1997, 16 years after the Jim Hogg case and hundreds of miles to the northwest, Ames is known to have killed at least one goat--and to have sickened two ranchhands who cut open the poor beast's stomach and poked around inside before storing the carcass in a kitchen freezer. Ames, as the CDC correctly asserts, is a naturally occurring bacterium. Want some? "I'd look for a dead animal," LSU's Martin Hugh-Jones advises. "You could just take some blood from the animal, some tissue, and swab and grow it up on blood agar--nothing easier. . . . I'd say first-year college microbiology."

You wouldn't even have to make a trip to Texas. Or be in the United States at all. Very closely related strains of anthrax--again, within the margin of DNA sequencing error--have been recovered from infected livestock in Argentina, England, South Africa, India, Australia, and China.

8) Really, though: Isn't it more likely that what we're talking about was stolen or cloned from a pre-existing laboratory stock?

Yes, but that doesn't help narrow things down much, either. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg's website lists Canada's DRES and a place called Porton Down in England as the only foreign installations known to keep Ames in their collections. Her list is woefully incomplete. Porton Down alone has openly acknowledged sharing Ames cultures with its associated public health agency, the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research. And that outfit in turn has acknowledged distributing Ames to an unspecified number of private researchers.

What's more, in March of last year a group of French scientists at the Centre d' tudes du Bouchet published a report on experiments they'd conducted with their own Ames sample. And explained that they'd collaborated on those experiments with a second French laboratory at the University of Paris. And expressed gratitude for shipments of Ames they'd received from a third French laboratory, the Institut Pasteur. And from a fourth French laboratory at the Agence Fran aise de S curit Sanitaire des Aliments. And from one Dr. Mats Forman of Sweden, too.

The stuff is all over the place. It is almost certainly held in one or more Russian depositories. According to an elaborate forensic analysis sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences in 1998, the accidental 1979 explosion of a Soviet biowarfare factory in what was then Sverdlovsk released no fewer than four separate strains of anthracis into the atmosphere, one of which is now grouped in the same subtype as Ames. At its height in the early 1990s, the Soviet germ-weapons program, Biopreparat, had 2,000 scientists working exclusively on anthrax. Those few of them who remain employed by successor agencies are currently paid $100 per month to maintain custody of laboratory facilities like the one in Obolensk--which is critically delinquent in its payments for the electricity necessary to keep 3,000 different anthrax isolates, the world's largest collection, safely on ice.

All of which makes penetration of the wobbly Russian biodefense establishment--by rogue nations or terrorist organizations--a worrisome and real possibility. Iran, for example, is known to have recruited a number of disgruntled or indigent Russian military biologists. Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, is not known to have bagged any Russians.

But he may not need to. Top Iraqi scientists Nassir Hindawi and Abdul Rahman Thamer first tried to acquire a sample of the Ames strain from Porton Down in 1988. They were turned down, but over the next two years they did manage to purchase an enormous quantity of anthrax-ready biological growth medium from a British commercial supplier. And nine other strains of anthracis from the Institut Pasteur and an American company now located in Manassas, Virginia. And at least two variants of the intensely pathogenic Vollum strain from...who knows where, and in addition to who knows what else.

In late November, a "microbiologist who has studied Ames" told the Washington Post he thought "the probability that [the Iraqis] don't have the strain is near zero."

9) Surely the FBI has some substantial reason to discount such fears and focus its attention on a domestic suspect?

That could well be, but if so they're keeping it to themselves.