Private anthrax lab doable -- with help

By ED SUSMAN and DEE ANN DIVIS, UPI Science News  |  Oct. 27, 2001 at 11:03 AM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- Though not at all simple, experts agree -- and a government program demonstrated within the past three years -- it would be possible for a private group with expertise and resources to create the anthrax sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Officials acknowledged this week the anthax in the Daschle letter was purified, concentrated and particularly finely powdered -- specially prepared to make it more likely to be inhaled. News reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times said other processes were used to keep the material from clumping and help it stay in the air longer.

"It is clear that the terrorist responsible for these events intended to use this anthrax as a weapon," said Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Friday the anthrax found in a letter could have been made "by a Ph.D. microbiologist in a sophisticated laboratory," but the findings did not rule out that bacteria was "state sponsored."

"There is no question that the anthrax attacks were made with professionally developed weapons grade bacteria," Dr. Craig Smith, director of infectious disease at the Phoebe Center for Infectious Diseases, Albany, Ga., told reporters at the annual meeting of the IDSA in San Francisco.

But Smith, who has worked with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., and who is a member of the Infectious Disease Society of America bioterrorism working group, said the chance of someone working in his basement laboratory to concoct anthrax would be almost impossible.

It would, however, be possible to set up a lab privately if the terrorists had the resources.

In 1999 and 2000, experts with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency decided to see if they could buy new and used equipment -- chemicals and biologicals -- and set up such a laboratory in the United States to make anthrax, Smith said. They got together a group of scientists, created a laundry list and went out and ordered all the elements.

"And they didn't raise one alarm in doing it," Smith said.

It cost about $1.67 million to set up the facility, and then the scientists actually used it to produce another bacteria, Smith said.

"They never made any anthrax, but the laboratory functioned and functioned without producing smells or other chemicals that would have alarmed anyone into calling authorities," he said.

The laboratory was part of Project Bacchus-Biotechnology Activity Characterization by Unconventional Signatures.

"The project was designed to quantify the threat and see what the possibility of assembling such an apparatus would be -- and if it would fly underneath the radar of law enforcement and the scientific community," he told United Press International. The project found it could achieve that goal, he said.

"To produce anthrax used in these attacks is not a simple process. It was high purity, high concentration, finely milled product that has even been adjusted for the electrostatic charge so that it would float in the air longer. They had stabilizers that reduced that electrostatic charge," he said.

That differs from the basement terrorist who might be able to develop a bit of anthrax and create a slurry that could be slapped on a letter to produce cutaneous anthrax. Smith said that could be done relatively easily with a few test tubes.

"But to weaponize it to the point where there would be a large number of inhalation cases...that's high technology," he said.

A U.S. expert on the former Soviet Union's bioterrorism program confirmed a person with sufficient knowledge and background could produce weapons grade anthrax here in the United States without being detected by law enforcement agencies.

Though offering few details, this expert said a program had taken place where money was given to an expert microbiologist to produce anthrax and that the scientist succeeded. "Someone with the know-how and determination could buy the equipment needed and no one would notice. No one is tracking the purchase of that type of equipment. It's pretty commonplace stuff," he said

Ronald Atlas, president-elect of the American Society for Microbiology and co-chair of their bio-weapons task force agreed that making the anthrax sent to Congress was doable -- though not a grad-student project.

He noted that none of the labs in the United States had the powdered form of the anthrax. What they had were cultures, he said, colonies of bacteria in test tubes or petri dishes. While a sample of the bacteria could have been stolen unnoticed, and then a quantity of spores grown from that sample, milling the spores into the final lethal form seen in the anthrax sent to Congress is very difficult.

"(The final preparation) is really the key. That sort of specialized knowledge is not available -- at least not widely available. I don't have that knowledge. I could, and many like me -- if we had access -- could grow the spores but we don't have the equipment or the knowledge to create these flying particles."

Atlas suggested that a terrorist group, with expert aid could successfully develop the tailored anthrax. The former Soviet Union and Iraq, as well as the United States, have experts who could take the anthrax to its final form, he said. One of those governments could have "loaned that expertise to a terrorist group," he added.

Moreover, while Atlas agreed it would take specialized equipment, such equipment would be obtainable.

It would have to be a well planned effort, Atlas said, adding "everything we have seen from Sept 11 on ... some of the activities have been well planned."

"The good news out of all of this," Smith said, "is that the strain used currently is susceptible to antibiotics. It has a natural antibiotic pattern. It looks like it resembles the Ames strain, which is an index strain of anthrax that many, many, many labs have and is used in bioterrorism research because it is a hardy strain."

Smith said the high quality of the anthrax used in the attacks that appear to have gone through the mail indicates to him large amounts were available before Sept. 11.

"To assemble the equipment, to assemble the expertise, set up the laboratory and produce something to the quality that they had, it had to be pre-exisiting on 9-11. It is impossible to have done that in a two or three week period," he said.

Smith also said the anthrax used in the attacks is susceptible to the anthrax vaccine that is currently available. The vaccine has some side effects: about 30 percent of people taking it suffer from pain and soreness at the injection site; about 5 percent have fever and other body aches.

"There has never been a scientifically verified case in which the anthrax vaccine has created a long-term complaint," Smith said. He said it takes about a month for a person who has been vaccinated to build up resistance to anthrax so taking antibiotics such as Cipro is warranted in cases where people might already have been exposed.

(With additional reporting by Malcolm Visser in Washington)

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