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Possible California Anthrax Exposure Raises Concerns

Global Security Newswire

The number of facilities performing anthrax research has increased significantly in recent years without corresponding regulation hikes, experts said last week following the possible exposure of seven California researchers to the biological agent (see GSN, June 11).

“This is a cautionary tale,” Jonathan Tucker, a senior researcher at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an expert in biological weapons, told the San Mateo County Times. “You have a lot of inexperienced researchers working at facilities around the country on these projects,” he added.

Up until about five years ago, only about 10 to 15 researchers in the United States were studying anthrax, according to the Times. Interest and government funding for such work have increased since then, according to Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax expert at Louisiana State University.

“Developing an anthrax vaccine is a popular area of research,” said Hugh-Jones. “Give me a name of an institute and they’re working on it,” he added.

The exposure incident at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, in which researchers were exposed a live anthrax they thought was a dead version of the virus, highlights insufficient regulation of the booming biological defense industry, said Richard Ebright, a microbiology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“This is a gap in regulation,” Ebright said. “This incident shows that material that is purportedly inactivated can have viable, recoverable agent. And because there are no regulations, no paper trail, this is a gap through which malicious organizations could obtain select agents without a paper trail and perhaps with serious safety incidents,” he added.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Congress and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tightened rules on the handling of select agents, the three categories of microorganisms believed to pose the greatest threat of use in bioterrorism. However, the federal health agency has since removed inactivated agent and avirulent or vaccine strains from the list, effectively exempting them from all regulation. Inactivated anthrax bacteria are not subject to the registration, security, shipping or biological safety rules of select agents, according to the Times.

Thomas Voss, a vice president at Southern Research Institute of Frederick, Md. — the organization that provided the Oakland laboratory with the live strains — said a review of the mistake is focused on the neutralization procedure used on the bacteria. Oakland researchers requested the bacteria be killed by heat treatment in boiling water, Voss said.

Some experts said hot water would not kill all the anthrax spores.

“If it is what it appears to be, it represents an institutional and a regulatory failure,” said a veteran anthrax researcher. “I would expect SRI to catch an incredible amount of heat and perhaps be closed down for a while,” the researcher added.

The CDC is launching a full investigation into Southern Research, according to the Times (Vesely/Hoffman, San Mateo County Times, June 12).