After months of bungled investigation, it now looks certain that
THE anthrax attack of 2001 is over. No more powder-laced letters have turned up in the mail since October and no new infections since November. Unless spores are still lurking in someone's lungs, office or mail, there will be no more victims.
Americans must now decide how to move on from an attack that claimed relatively few lives, but was a huge kick in the teeth for a country still reeling after 11 September. To make matters worse, as New Scientist goes to press, the FBI still has no culprit-or even a firm suspect, to judge by the doubling of the reward to $2.5 million last month.
Investigators are virtually certain of one thing, though: it was an inside job. The anthrax attacker is an American scientist-and worse, one from within the
The first anthrax victim was Robert Stevens, a photo editor on a tabloid newspaper in
His lab quickly worked out what type it was. Nine days later, after anthrax had struck one of Stevens's colleagues and a television station in
Confusion reigned as to exactly what this meant (see "Mix-ups and muddles"). But the crucial discovery, as revealed by New Scientist (27 October 2001, p 4), was that Stevens's bacteria were dead ringers for an unusually virulent strain from the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland. And USAMRIID circulated these particular bacilli to only a few collaborators.
Even getting this far owed much to luck. Anthrax DNA hardly varies at all, and strains have been genetically distinguishable only since the late 1990s. Currently only Keim's technique, which counts variations in the number of repeat sequences of DNA at 50 different places in the genome, can pinpoint the USAMRIID lineage.
Investigators were only able do so because a few scientists happened to be keen on this kind of research, not because there was an organised system for tracking bioweapons. The attacker may not even have realised how precisely the source of his bacteria could be traced.
But the genetic trail may now have gone cold. Investigators hoped that samples from the dozen labs holding USAMRIID's strain would be sufficiently different to reveal where the attacker got his bacteria. They include three
So far, all the samples tested in Keim's analysis have been identical. His lab is now working with the Institute for Genomic Research in
Hope now rests on analysing the way the anthrax was turned into the fine, floating powder that makes it a weapon. This was the attacker's masterstroke. The five envelopes held just 2 grams of powder each-yet they managed to contaminate a huge area.
No one realised just how huge until postal workers started getting anthrax. Two died after
There was no excuse for not knowing how insidious weaponised anthrax can be. Ken Alibek, former head of the Soviet anthrax programme who now works in the
Canadian biodefence scientists had even measured how easily a harmless relative of anthrax could spread though postal machines when it was weaponised. They warned the
Yet to the expert eye, the envelope opened in Senator Tom Daschle's office on 15 October obviously contained weaponised anthrax. It even resembled the powder the
The lab had a reasonable motive: to test anthrax detectors, and study the powder's behaviour. Officials could have used that information to respond to the attack. Yet apparently they didn't-even though the Canadian research, which could have saved lives, used bacteria weaponised at Dugway.
But a clearer picture is now emerging. The attacker used the
One more clue points to someone who worked at USAMRIID itself. A
Assaad was laid off by USAMRIID in 1997, and was harassed while he worked there. He was cleared of the bioterrorist charge. Barbara Rosenberg, a bioweapons expert for the Federation of American Scientists, suspects the letter was the real attacker's attempt to frame Assaad by capitalising on anti-Muslim feeling after 11 September. It revealed an insider's familiarity with USAMRIID.
The attacker also masqueraded, unconvincingly, as a Muslim in the anthrax letters themselves. This could be a clue to his motivations. If he wished to scale up
If he wished merely to make the
That chilling possibility underscores the
Is throwing money at biodefence the answer?
This week President Bush announced an $11 billion increase in biodefence funding over the next two years. A lot of that will go into research. A whopping $1.5 billion is earmarked for the National Institutes of Health-five times its current biodefence budget.
The NIH money will pay for basic research into "select agents"-the buzz phrase for the pathogens most likely to be turned into weapons, and for work on improved diagnostics, drugs and vaccines. Top of the list come anthrax, plague, smallpox, botulism and tularemia, a bacterial disease of rodents. The genetic characteristics of many of these select agents are poorly understood, and most have no vaccine.
But more research means that more of these organisms will exist in more labs, and more people will know how to work with them. It's a risky strategy when the anthrax perpetrator is thought to be a
Yet with such largesse on offer, researchers are stampeding to the trough. "The increase in support has engendered a gold-rush atmosphere among microbiologists and molecular biologists," complains Ebright. At the height of the anthrax scare last November, Nancy Connell of the Biodefense Initiative at
Suspicion that the anthrax attacker is an American scientist has already led to a clampdown. US microbiologists, speaking off the record, tell of hordes of government inspectors, from the FBI to the US Department of Agriculture, descending on labs in the past few months, issuing subpoenas for lab records, and demanding security improvements.
Researchers also face new legal controls. The USA Patriots Act passed in November requires background checks for scientists working with a list of toxic agents. Congress is finalising a Bioweapons Protection Act that will demand increased security and containment, and the registration of labs, scientists, and the genetic fingerprints of laboratory pathogens, to track any future release.
These new precautions don't come cheap. It can cost millions just to improve containment. That could drive the research away from smaller university labs, even though they tend to do the most innovative research, says Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax expert at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Soon only the biggest labs may be able to afford the few experts in the area. Some scientists are reportedly being offered six-figure salaries.
Mix-ups and muddles
CONFUSION reigned after the FBI announced that the attacker had used the
The date of origin would reveal whether or not the anthrax was left over from the old weapons programme. But even top experts contacted by New Scientist couldn't say for sure what it was.
Only last week, after rummaging through old records, did a sheepish US Department of Agriculture finally confirm that the strain came from a cow in
While this highlights the value of knowing where strains of pathogens come from, the Ames saga also revealed that no one knows the home address of many potential bioweapons. A massive effort to map the genetic variation of the nastiest species is now gathering steam, starting with lab stocks of smallpox.