ANTHRAX TESTS SHOWING GENE LINK AND TERRORISM THEORY



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Last Updated

14 Jun 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2001.

Special Report: Aftermath of Terror

Anthrax Tests Showing Gene Link Add to Domestic Terrorism Theory

By TOM HAMBURGER, GARY FIELDS and SARAH LUECK, Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

WASHINGTON -- Recent tests showing a genetic link between the anthrax used in an Army program and spores sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle are giving investigators further cause to suspect a domestic terrorist rather than a foreign plot in recent anthrax attacks.

Using a profile drawn up by specialists from its behavioral-science unit, the Federal Bureau of Investigations is probing more intensively military personnel, civilian contractors and academics who had access to Pentagon anthrax programs. Investigators aren't ruling out other possible sources.

The link between the Capitol Hill anthrax and the military's strain was identified last week by scientists who have been comparing the samples' DNA structure.

For weeks, scientists have known that the letter sent to the Capitol contained the Ames variety of anthrax. But tests conducted by the University of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, Ariz., found the Daschle spores' DNA appears to match a strain of anthrax developed 20 years ago by the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease at Fort Detrick, Md.

Federal officials said the genetic comparison remains incomplete. Even if a clear match were found, it wouldn't prove anything conclusively, they said.

"These are important leads," said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist and bioterrorism expert based in Minneapolis who has been consulting with the federal government. "But if, in fact, the organization that originally developed the anthrax strain sent it to others, or if it could have been stolen, there are still a wide array of possibilities out there."

FBI officials concur, acknowledging they are still investigating the potential of foreign perpetrators as well as domestic ones. Following the trail of the Fort Detrick anthrax would require that. After developing it during the early 1980s, Fort Detrick shared its supply with Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, Porton Down laboratory in England and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La. In addition, small samples were shared with other researchers during the early years, often without any record.

FBI officials confirm they have scrutinized scientists at Dugway, Fort Detrick and LSU since late October, as well as civilian operations, including Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, which contracted with the Department of Defense.

In addition, there was a little-known anthrax program at the Central Intelligence Agency that maintained a small supply of Ames-strain anthrax to compare with samples obtained elsewhere. The agency has been cooperating closely with the FBI. An agency spokesman said he didn't know the source of the limited anthrax strain used by the CIA but added, "We are quite confident that whatever the [bioterror] source, it did not come from our supply."

A senior law-enforcement official said the examinations of the military and CIA anthrax programs haven't generated any hot leads. This official, who requested anonymity, said investigators were doing "no more or less" at military sites such as Dugway than they have been doing at civilian labs that are known to possess the Ames strain of anthrax.

Agents from FBI field offices have been checking the background of anyone with access to anthrax and to the technology capable of producing it. They have looked at those involved with a secret Pentagon program called Project Bacchus that was established during the 1990s to determine whether terrorists could manufacture biological weapons using materials purchased from the private sector.

Federal law-enforcement authorities are especially interested in anyone who left their jobs there suddenly. Their search includes individuals who might not know how to produce the anthrax, but who could be capable of taking a small, unnoticeable sample and turning it over to someone else. Agents are making use of a profile created by FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms behavioral specialists that was released early last month.

"We're going every place that has or has had the Ames strain and making sure they can account for all of it," an FBI official said.

While the manhunt continued, health officials said that as many as 3,000 people believed to be at high risk for exposure to anthrax could be vaccinated this week. About 75 Capitol Hill workers and hundreds of employees at the Brentwood mail-sorting facility are among those likely to be at the top of the list, U.S. health officials said at a public meeting held Saturday to discuss the issue.

"We are most concerned about people who may have had very heavy exposure," Dr. D.A. Henderson said, because of the possibility that spores may remain in their lungs and cause infections after the 60-day course of preventive antibiotics that was initially prescribed.

Top advisers plan to make a recommendation early this week to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

-- Mark Schoofs contributed to this article.