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Last Updated

14 Jun 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2001.


Army Confirms Experiments With Anthrax at Utah Facility


The U.S. Army confirmed Thursday that it has experimented in the last few years at a Utah facility with powdered forms of anthrax that could be used as a weapon, but said all of the material had been accounted for.

Army officials refused to say if the powdered anthrax -- manufactured to test defensive decontamination methods, they said -- was the same as the Ames strain that was used in the mailing attacks. The Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah does have that strain, and Federal Bureau of Investigation officials said they are now waiting for scientists to determine if it was used in powder form by the lab.

The FBI has been aware since October that the facility was experimenting with powdered anthrax and has questioned personnel there about the matter. But a senior law-enforcement official working on the case said, "to say someone from Dugway is the culprit is pure speculation. ... We've been working very closely with the Army, and they've been very cooperative."

Army shipping records show that anthrax was sent to Dugway Proving Grounds from the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. At Dugway, the anthrax was used as part of small-scale, regular experiments to test detection equipment and decontamination gear to better equip U.S. soldiers against biological weapons, Army officials said. The effort was launched after the Gulf War.

The Army said in a statement that "all anthrax used at Dugway has been accounted for. There is a rigorous tracking and inventory program to follow the production, receipt and destruction of select agents."

FBI officials say they have been surprised by the widespread use of anthrax in laboratories and research universities. "It's been eye-opening for us," a senior FBI official said Thursday. "The way the science community works, it's very freewheeling and free-sharing."

Tim Moore, director of research for the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, whose school has been contacted by the FBI, said there is a "very different culture of how scientists deal with their [anthrax] cultures. When I was in grad school the lab was a mess. There were cultures that had been in there for 15 years; nobody knew who they belonged to."

Meanwhile, federal health officials said they will meet this weekend to discuss whether to offer anthrax vaccinations to thousands of people who may have been exposed to the dangerous bacterium.

About 9,000 people in Florida, Washington, New York and New Jersey were told to take antibiotics for 60 days to stave off anthrax infections. As that deadline gets closer for many, some health officials wonder if the course was long enough to prevent anthrax spores in the lungs from causing infection. Evidence that many people didn't finish the regimen also has raised concerns; many of the postal workers at the Brentwood facility where contaminated letters were processed have told health officials they didn't finish the regimen.

Officials must decide if the possibility the vaccine may protect people is worth the possibility of adverse reactions to it. They also must decide how much of the 220,000 doses transferred from the Defense Department to the Department of Health and Human Services stockpile should be used rather than saved for potential future outbreaks. Vaccinating all the people deemed to be at risk would require at least 27,000 doses.

Postal officials also said they are considering issuing fliers to New Jersey residents in the hopes of securing more leads over the mailer of four anthrax-tainted letters postmarked Trenton, N.J. The proposed flier, to be sent out before Dec. 25, could include images of the letters, the FBI's profile of the mailer, the idiosyncrasies of the mailer's handwriting, and information about the case's $1.25 million reward.

-- Sarah Lueck, Chad Terhune and Kathy Chen contributed to this article.