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Last Updated

10 Dec 2002

Source:  New York Times, February 27, 2002.


Labs Are Sent Subpoenas for Samples of Anthrax


In an important step for narrowing the pool of anthrax suspects, the Justice Department is sending subpoenas to microbiology laboratories across the country for samples of the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis, the kind used in the letter attacks in the fall.

Scientists working for the federal government said they hoped that studying the samples' genetic fingerprints would help determine which of 12 or more laboratories is the likely source of the bacteria in the attacks.

Some private experts expressed surprise that subpoenas for the samples were going out only now, more than four months after the Ames strain was identified as the germ in the letters.

But federal law enforcement officials defended their approach as sound, saying it was purposefully deliberate and thorough to ensure that no logical bit of evidence went unexamined and that assembled clues were incontestable.

"The investigation has its own natural course," an official said. "We're making progress," even if the pace at times seems slow.

One factor slowing the subpoenas for Ames samples, the official added, was the need to develop a scientific protocol that describes exactly how the samples are to be taken and shipped. It continues for pages.

"That took time to develop," the official said.

The instructions are meant to insure that the samples are kept alive and pure and that the process of obtaining them, if need be, can one day stand up in court.

"There are serious health risks and a potential for danger," another federal law enforcement official said.

Institutions that have received the subpoenas include the University of New Mexico and Louisiana State University, which maintains one of the nation's largest anthrax collections.

A spokesman for the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque, Sam Giammo, said its anthrax scientist received the subpoena yesterday and would send a sample of its Ames strain next week.

It was unclear which other institutions have received subpoenas, although private experts estimated that the number would probably exceed 12.

Katy Delaney, a spokeswoman for the Battelle Memorial Institute, a military contractor with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, said her company would not confirm whether it had received a subpoena but added that it always cooperated with law enforcement officials.

"And we are certainly complying with all legal requests," Ms. Delaney added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which is said to have the Ames strain, also declined to say whether it had received a subpoena.

A federal grand jury in Washington is issuing the subpoenas, scientists and officials said.

Back in October and November, federal authorities sent out a first round of subpoenas meant to find out which laboratories possessed anthrax, particularly the Ames strain. Although federal rules and regulations govern shipping deadly germs, none require central record-keeping of what labs keep lethal pathogens.

As officials looked for the anthrax, three groups of scientists worked to develop methods of finding genetic fingerprints in the Ames strain. In theory, such methods could help pinpoint the laboratory where the attack strain was obtained.

The three groups are led by Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, Paul J. Jackson of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Claire M. Fraser of the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md., a private group that maps microbe genomes.

Dr. Keim, in particular, has reported some progress in finding Ames fingerprints. But it has been unclear how far he has applied the new techniques to actual samples from various laboratories. The evidence of the subpoenas suggests that his analyses have been sketchy.

"Urgent Request," said a cover letter that the Justice Department sent to a university that requested anonymity. The enclosed subpoena, the letter said, "seeks an isolate from each stock of Ames Bacillus anthracis cultured or stored at your facility."

The letter said samples had to be prepared and shipped to Dr. John Ezzell at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick, Md.

A scientist at Fort Detrick said the work was under way. "It's no secret that we're the repository for the F.B.I.," the scientist said. "And they've requested that these samples be sent in. We're working on it now."

The samples, he said, will eventually go to Dr. Keim at Northern Arizona and other researchers.