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Last Updated

11 Jun 2003

Source: Washington Post,  November 30, 2001.

Ames Strain Of Anthrax Limited to Few Labs

By Steve Fainaru and Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writers

Since the mid-1980s, the U.S. Army laboratory that is the main custodian of the virulent strain of anthrax used in the recent terrorist attacks distributed the bacteria to just five labs in the United States, Canada and England, according to government documents and interviews.

Two of the labs -- both in the private sector -- received the strain this spring, only a few months before letters tainted with anthrax spores were mailed to New York and Washington, the records show.

The documents, obtained by The Washington Post, offer the first official accounting of how the microbes, known as the Ames strain, were originally disseminated. They show that the distribution of Ames was much narrower than recently thought, and a top anthrax researcher said the strain may be limited to a dozen labs.

The five original labs also provide a starting point for investigators trying to determine how the Ames strain fell into the hands of a terrorist or terrorists.

Col. Arthur Friedlander, senior military research scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Md., said the Ames strain was distributed by the military for research purposes under strict controls to "legitimate workers in the field."

FBI spokesman Mike Kortan said yesterday that the agency's anthrax probe had moved "way beyond" the short list of labs that received the Ames strain from Fort Detrick. A government official who asked not to be named said the five labs were used to guide investigators trying to trace the movements of the strain to other researchers and institutions.

Transfer records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act show that USAMRIID, which is located in Frederick, shared the Ames strain last March with scientists at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, an Albuquerque research institute, and in May and June with the Battelle Memorial Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, corporation involved in anthrax vaccine research.

No records were available before 1997, when a new federal law required researchers to report the transfer of dangerous pathogens to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But USAMRIID officials said the other labs to receive Ames were the Defence Research Establishment Suffield, a Canadian biodefense institute that received Ames in 1998; the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, a test facility in the Utah desert that received the bacteria in 1992; and the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down, a British biodefense institute near Salisbury, England, which received the Ames strain in the mid-1980s.

"This is not a cavalier thing that one does," Friedlander said. "When anyone isolates strains, they are shared through the scientific community. That's how research gets done. It follows a long tradition of collaboration with people that we are well familiar with."

The Ames strain, a virulent form of anthrax bacteria, is named for the Iowa city in which it was originally isolated. It was used in suspected terrorist attacks that have killed five people and infected 13 in Florida, New York, Connecticut and the District, according to investigators.

When the anthrax attacks began in early October, many experts believed that the Ames strain, because of its use in vaccine studies, had been distributed to thousands of researchers worldwide. But that number has been reduced considerably in recent weeks. Friedlander estimated yesterday that the labs in possession of virulent anthrax strains, including Ames, probably numbered "no more than a dozen."

In addition to the five labs that received Ames from USAMRIID, others known to have the Ames strain are Martin E. Hugh-Jones, an anthrax researcher at Louisiana State University, and a lab at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Jones recently said he received the Ames strain in the late 1990s from microbiologist Peter Turnbull, then at Porton Down. Turnbull, confirming the transaction in an interview last week, said Porton Down shared Ames with "very few" researchers, whom he declined to name.

Scientists have identified USAMRIID as the primary distributor of Ames. Much of the history of that distribution since the 1980s is spelled out in a few dozen pages of transfer forms that scientists are required to fill out whenever certain kinds of dangerous microbes change hands.

The records document the delivery of Ames bacteria to at least 10 establishments, but only five received Ames in a virulent form that make people sick.

The first agency reported to have received the Ames strain from Fort Detrick was the Chemical Defense Establishment, which used the bacteria to test vaccines for troops.

Porton Down scientists previously acknowledged sharing the bacteria with the agency's public health branch, the Center for Applied Microbiology and Research. CAMR officials in turn have acknowledged distributing the bacteria to a small number of private researchers.

Fort Detrick's documents record several exchanges of Ames bacteria between USAMRIID and the Dugway Proving Ground, the Pentagon's primary chemical and biological defense testing center, which is located in Utah's Great Salt Lake Desert.

Dugway, the site of several biological weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s, has continued to use live anthrax spores in experiments that test the durability of military equipment under a simulated biological attack.

Michael Cast, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Developmental Test Command, which oversees Dugway, said the agency could not comment on specific biological agents in its possession. But he said the security measures at the West Desert Test Center, where Dugway scientists test everything from protective suits to armored vehicles, are "very stringent."

In 1998, the Canadian government requested the Ames strain for its Defence Research Establishment Suffield, Ottawa's counterpart to Fort Detrick. According to documents prepared by DRES scientists, Ames was one of 11 strains of Bacillus anthracis bacteria given to Canada by USAMRIID. Among the others was Vollum 1B, the strain used by the Pentagon in its biological weapons program in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Canadians studied Ames in experiments that tested the effectiveness of antibiotics against various bacterial strains, documents showed.

DRES chief scientist Kent Harding said the anthrax spores were closely guarded against theft. "We're talking several locked doors and 24-7 monitoring," he said.

Two research agencies received Ames bacteria from Fort Detrick this year, in shipments that predate the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Battelle Corp., a major government contractor that manages Energy Department laboratories and operates the Chemical and Biological Information Analysis Center for the Defense Department, was planning to use the strain in developing vaccines.

Spokeswoman Katy Delaney said she could not comment on Battelle's anthrax research, but she said officials were unaware of security problems at its facilities. "We know of no instances of safety or security breaches in our biodefense research," Delaney said.

The records also show that USAMRIID shared Ames with the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center last March. The center operates a Pentagon-funded lab that evaluates potential treatments and protections against biological weapons.

A university spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of the research. "As a matter of prudence, we do not discuss which specific organisms we have in our labs," said Sam Giammo, director of public affairs for the Health Science Center.

While initial tests have suggested that the anthrax spores used in the terrorist attacks were of the Ames strain, further genetic testing is needed to establish conclusive proof. Some scientists have suggested the terrorists' strain could be an "Ames-like" variation, unknown until now.

"The evidence suggests it's the same strain," Friedlander said. "But there is the possibility that it is not."

The new documents shed little light on the early history of the Ames strain, which remains somewhat murky despite the recent attention.

The U.S. biological weapons program had been officially dismantled for more than a decade when Fort Detrick received the strain around 1980 from Department of Agriculture researchers in Ames, Iowa. At the time, interest in anthrax was intensifying because of reports that the Soviet Union was secretly developing biological weapons.

"We were requesting strains from different labs, and we received this strain. It wasn't named Ames then," Friedlander said.

Fort Detrick researchers were drawn to the novel strain because it appeared more resistant to vaccines, he said. A vaccine that could protect against Ames would offer the highest protection for troops exposed to deadly germs on the battlefield.

The fact that relatively few labs appear to have worked with Ames could narrow the search for the person or group behind the deadly attacks, Friedlander suggested.

"The world of anthrax researchers is quite small. There isn't a large group of people working with fully virulent strains," he said. "Obviously, if there were 1,000 labs it would be a different order of magnitude than if there were only a handful."

Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.