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Last Updated

16 Dec 2002

Source: Associated Press, December 19, 2001.

Anthrax Inquiry Focuses on Labs

By LAURA MECKLER and KAREN GULLO, Associated Press Writers

WASHINGTON (AP) - The anthrax investigation is focused on fewer than a dozen laboratories that have worked with the deadly bacteria, federal officials said, and investigators are working to identify the genetic fingerprints of anthrax held at each of them.

Investigators are increasingly convinced the anthrax that has killed five people since October came from inside the United States, and they are hoping to find the laboratory that produced it.

There have been no new cases of anthrax infection for weeks, but officials are still dealing with fallout from those exposed to the tainted letters during the fall.

Federal health officials said Tuesday they would offer the experimental anthrax vaccine and an extra 40 days of antibiotic treatment to thousands of Capitol Hill, media and postal workers in case any anthrax still lurks in their lungs.

The risk of getting anthrax after the standard two months of antibiotics is "very mild, minor,'' stressed Dr. D.A. Henderson, the government's top bioterrorism adviser. "It is not zero, however.''

In the investigation, the FBI believes there are at least five and as many as a dozen labs that have worked with anthrax from the Ames strain found in letters sent to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, said a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Specifically, they've focused on labs that received samples from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease at Fort Detrick, Md.

It is taking time to investigate each one, the official said Tuesday. That includes complicated genetic fingerprinting of the anthrax each lab holds, as well as interviewing people who work there.

So far, the anthrax at each tested lab has been a perfect genetic match to the anthrax found in the letters, said another federal official, also speaking anonymously. But anthrax has not yet been tested from every lab, he said.

In recent days, attention has focused on the possibility that a U.S. military installation was involved.

That's partly because many of the labs that received anthrax of the Ames strain got it from Fort Detrick. Also, military officials said last week that Dugway Proving Ground, an Army installation in the Utah desert, has been working with a powdered form of anthrax since 1992 in its biowarfare research program.

Asked about the military's involvement, Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge acknowledged on Tuesday the possibility but said it was not the only one.

"There are multiple agencies within government that have for many years, for many reasons had access to this strain of anthrax,'' he said. "That connection (to the military) could very well exist. The fact is we have multiple leads.''

At least one leading expert is urging the FBI to focus on government laboratories and contractors. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York at Purchase, has told the FBI the perpetrator probably has connections with the government.

"Many contractors work in government labs and would have access to material,'' said Rosenberg, who chairs a biological weapons panel at the Federation of American Scientists.

Among contractors being investigated are those that do classified work for the CIA, whose work is aimed at bioterrorism defense.

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said the agency is cooperating with the FBI. He said all its work with virulent anthrax was done by a couple of outside contractors.

The scientist who helped the United States refine anthrax and turn it into a weapon said Tuesday that bacteria spores used in the recent attacks could have been processed in a variety of ways, making it more difficult to trace the spores to their source.

"You can process the stuff in so many different ways, I don't think that it will be the smoking gun,'' said William C. Patrick III. Patrick led the Army's biological weapons program until it ended in 1969 and taught scientists at Dugway how to turn wet clusters of bacteria spores into a dry powder.

Patrick, who holds patents for techniques used to make weapons-grade anthrax, suggested the culprit is not necessarily linked to a large lab. The type of spores sent through the mail could have been processed in a crude laboratory "as long as you are dealing with small quantities of material,'' he said.

Similarly, Rosenberg said the key to the investigation will involve finding someone with a motive, rather than further scientific analysis of the anthrax.

The law enforcement official said the FBI is looking into a variety of possibilities, including political or ideological motivations and the potential for financial gain from the attacks, such as someone connected to an environmental cleanup company.

Investigators are considering whether the person who sent the letters could be a lab worker rather than a scientist or a chemist.