02 Nov 2002
December 12, 2001.
Anthrax matches Army spores
Bioterror: Organisms made at
a military laboratory in Utah are genetically identical to those mailed to
members of Congress.
Shane, Sun Staff
For nearly a decade, U.S. Army scientists at
Ground in Utah have made small quantities of weapons-grade anthrax that is
virtually identical to the powdery spores used in the mail attacks that have
killed five people, government sources say.
Until the anthrax attacks led to tighter security measures,
anthrax grown at Dugway was regularly sent by Federal Express to the Army's
biodefense center at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, where the bacteria were killed
using gamma radiation before being returned to Dugway for experiments.
The anthrax was shipped in the form of a coarse paste, not in the
far more dangerous finely milled form, according to one government official.
Most anthrax testing at Dugway, in a barren Utah desert 87 miles
southwest of Salt Lake City, is done using the killed spores to reduce the
chance of accidental exposure of workers there.
But some experiments require live anthrax, milled to the tiny
particle size expected on a battlefield, to test both decontamination techniques
and biological agent detection systems, the sources say.
Anthrax is also grown at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute
of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, where it is used chiefly to test the
effectiveness of vaccines in animals.
But that medical program uses a wet aerosol fog of anthrax rather
than the dry powder used in the attacks and at Dugway, according to interviews
and medical journal articles based on the research.
The wet anthrax, while still capable of killing people, is safer
for laboratory workers to handle, scientists say.
Dugway's production of weapons-grade anthrax, which has never
before been publicly revealed, is apparently the first by the U.S. government
since President Richard M. Nixon ordered the U.S. offensive biowarfare program
closed in 1969.
Scientists familiar with the anthrax program at Dugway described
it to The Sun on the condition that they not be named.
The offensive program made hundreds of kilograms of anthrax for
bombs designed to kill enemy troops over hundreds of square miles.
Dugway's Life Sciences Division makes the deadly spores in far,
far smaller quantities, rarely accumulating more than 10 grams at a time,
according to one Army official.
Scientists estimate that the letter sent to Senate Majority
Leader Tom Daschle originally contained about 2 grams of anthrax, about
one-sixteenth of an ounce, or the weight of a dime.
But its extraordinary concentration - in the range of 1 trillion
spores per gram - meant that the letter could have contained 200 million times
the average dose necessary to kill a person.
Dugway's weapons-grade anthrax has been milled to achieve a
similar concentration, according to one person familiar with the program.
The concentration exceeds that of weapons anthrax produced by the
old U.S. offensive program or the Soviet biowarfare program, according to Dr.
Richard O. Spertzel, who worked at Detrick for 18 years and later served as a
United Nations bioweapons inspector in Iraq.
Lab security measures
No evidence linking the Dugway anthrax to the attacks has been
made public, and there might well be none. Army officials say the anthrax there
and at Fort Detrick has long been protected by multiple security measures.
The FBI has extensively questioned Dugway employees who have had
access to anthrax, according to people familiar with the investigation.
Agents also have questioned people at Fort Detrick and other
government and university laboratories that have used the Ames strain of anthrax
found in the letters.
Still, the analysis of the genetic and physical properties of the
anthrax mailed to Daschle and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy has caused investigators to
take a hard look at Dugway's anthrax program.
First, the genetic fingerprint of the mailed anthrax is
indistinguishable from that of the Ames "reference strain," which is the strain
used most often at Fort Detrick and Dugway, according to a scientist familiar
with the genetic work.
Researchers led by Paul Keim at Northern Arizona University have
compared the two samples and found them identical at 50 genetic markers - the
most sensitive genetic identification method available.
That does not mean the mailed anthrax necessarily originated from
an Army program, because Ames anthrax has been widely used at government and
university laboratories in the United States and overseas.
Shipped without records
While some sources have estimated Ames might have been used in as
few as 20 labs, one scientist who has worked with anthrax said the total cannot
be known exactly, but is probably closer to 50.
"Until the last few years, a graduate student would call up a
friend at another lab and say, 'Send me Ames,' and they'd do it," the scientist
said. "There wouldn't necessarily be any records kept."
Ames is similar to but distinct from the Vollum1B strain of
anthrax used in the old U.S. offensive biological weapons program.
The genetic testing proves the mailed anthrax was not left over
from the old program, most scientists agree.
Even more provocative than the genetics are the physical
properties of the mailed anthrax. While some scientists disagree, many
bioterrorism experts argue that the quality of the mailed anthrax is such that
it could have been produced only in a weapons program or using information from
such a program.
Link to Dugway base
If true, that would greatly limit the field, increasing the
likelihood of a link to the only site in the United States where weapons-grade
anthrax has been made in recent years.
Dugway, which is larger than Rhode Island, has been a military
testing ground since World War II, when military officials selected it for its
remote location in Utah's Great Salt Lake Desert.
The Dugway anthrax program was launched in the early 1990s,
shortly after the Persian Gulf war reawakened U.S. military commanders to the
threat from biological weapons.
Iraq is known to have built a major bioweapons program that
included anthrax in its potential arsenal.
According to Dugway's Web site, the proving ground's Life
Sciences Division has an aerosol technology branch and a biotechnology branch,
both of which use a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory designed to contain pathogens.
Anthrax and other dangerous germs at Dugway are guarded by video
cameras, intrusion alarms, double locks and a buddy system that does not permit
workers to handle the agents alone, according to one scientist.
But Dugway does not have a gamma radiation machine, which is why
its anthrax has been shipped to Detrick for irradiation.
Dr. David L. Huxsoll, who headed Detrick's biodefense program in
the 1980s, said vaccines and detection systems must be tested against
aerosolized anthrax if troops are to be prepared for biological attacks.
"When you're building a program to defend against biological
weapons on the battlefield, you have to be prepared for an aerosol exposure," he
Not a treaty violation
Milton Leitenberg, an expert on bioweapons at the
University of Maryland, said he was not aware of the Dugway anthrax production.
But he said making a few grams of weapons-grade
anthrax for testing defensive equipment would not violate the international
convention on biological weapons.
The treaty bans the production of bioagents "of
types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective
and other peaceful purposes."
"There's no specific limit in grams or micrograms,"
Leitenberg said. "But if you got up in the hundreds of grams, people would be
very, very skeptical."
The FBI's investigation, called Amerithrax, has
focused on the possibility that the anthrax terrorist might be a loner in this
country with some scientific training.
The Sun reported Sunday that in two months, none of
the hundreds of FBI agents on the case had contacted the Army retirees who
produced anthrax in the 1950s and 1960s.
Yesterday, one of those anthrax veterans, Orley R.
Bourland Jr. of Walkersville, got a call from the White House Office of Homeland
Security seeking information.
The FBI had not made contact with several veterans