« Home | Legal situation is murky in anthrax vaccine fight » | Fort Detrick Poses a Threat to Frederick, Md.--and... » | FBI Denies Overestimating Anthrax Power » | FBI Denies Overestimating Anthrax Power » | New Anthrax Vaccine Shows Promise » | Rogers' bioterrorism bill clears House » | Bird Flu Vaccine Additive May Stretch Supply » | HUGIN NEWS/Crucell and NIH VRC Announce Start of E... » | FBI Is Casting A Wider Net in Anthrax Attacks » | Samples Provide Fewer Clues Than Earlier Thought t... »

Five years later, and few answers in anthrax probe

By Alison Walker
Frederick News-Post Staff

Five years after anthrax was used in lethal mail attacks, the federal government still has few answers and considerable work to prepare for a similar attack. Letters containing powdered anthrax spores were mailed to media outlets in New York and Florida and to Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The attacks resulted in five deaths and 17 anthrax infections. Officials first announced a confirmed case of inhalation anthrax Oct. 4, 2001, in a Florida photo editor who died the next day.

Dubbing the case "Amerithrax, " the FBI investigation placed a Fort Detrick lab under national scrutiny.

The case remains unsolved.


The source of the anthrax has eluded investigators, and experts say the perpetrator may never be found.

Luciana Borio, an infectious disease expert, said anthrax is more difficult to trace than many bacterial agents. Ms. Borio is a senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Biosecurity.

"The difficulty we have with biothreats is there is no return address, there is no signature," she said. "It's almost impossible to identify who did it."

The genetic makeup of anthrax is not unique to its geographic origin, said Steven Hinrichs, who directs the University of Nebraska's Center for Biosecurity in Omaha. Finding such a geographic correlation would allow investigators to link an anthrax sample to its place of origin.

"Identifying genetic differences (among samples) has been difficult, and they may not even exist," he said.

Col. David Franz is the former commander of the Army's biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID.

While bullets from a gun can be traced to the gun that fired them, he said, similar techniques don't exist in biology.

Suspect pool

Reports that the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks was less sophisticated than once thought could extend the pool of suspects beyond the U.S. biodefense community, and could further complicate the FBI investigation.

Douglas Beecher is a scientist in the FBI's Hazardous Materials Response Unit. The theory that the spores were manufactured military-style was a misconception, he said in an August scientific journal.

These revelations may indicate the perpetrator wasn't a member of the U.S. biodefense community, The Washington Post reported in late September.

Media reports after the attacks said the anthrax was made with additives and complex engineering, a combination known as weaponizing. Investigators looked for a biodefense insider with the ability to produce such a product.

Col. Franz, the former USAMRIID commander, told The Frederick News-Post on Monday the anthrax mailed to Sen. Daschle was probably not weaponized, but it was still high quality.

"Whoever purified it and dried it had to know what they were doing," he said.

The anthrax was clean, with little debris, Col. Franz said. The sample contained individual spores, which would take significant skill to produce, he said.

Mr. Hinrichs, the Nebraska biosecurity expert, said inhalation anthrax that isn't weaponized is still a serious infectious threat.

"(The anthrax used in 2001) was certainly effective enough," he said, referring to the five people who died from exposure to the agent.

It is possible that weaponized anthrax would have infected or killed more people than in 2001, Dr. Hinrichs said.

Investigators are also widening the scope of the anthrax case to outside the United States because the strain of anthrax used in the attacks has been found in labs around the world.

Fort Detrick

The FBI's investigation initially focused on USAMRIID, the Army's biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick.

USAMRIID was strongly linked to Ames strain anthrax. The lab was the first to use the Ames anthrax strain for research -- and gave the strain its name -- in the 1980s.

In June 2002, the FBI named former USAMRIID researcher Steven J. Hatfill "a person of interest."

Agents searched Mr. Hatfill's apartment across the street from Fort Detrick. They searched a frozen pond in the Frederick watershed in late 2002 for evidence used in the 2001 attacks, and drained the pond in June 2003.

Mr. Hatfill has pursued a lawsuit against the government, trying to find employees at the FBI and the Justice Department who leaked his name to reporters during the anthrax investigation. He is also suing several news organizations for libel.

Preventing threats

Anthrax remains the most probable agent of bioterrorism today, but
government officials still have work ahead of them to prepare for another attack, said Ms. Borio of the UPMC Center for Biosecurity.

"Even though (anthrax) is a top threat, and even with a tremendous amount of resources to deal with it, we still haven't done as much as we can as a government to diminish the threat," she said.

Ms. Borio stressed the need for improvements in public health response preparedness.

Even with stockpiled antibiotics and vaccines, state and local action would be critical during threats, she said.

Delivering medical care, distributing treatments and educating physicians to recognize exposure is a local responsibility, Ms. Borio said.

States must also be prepared to request, transport and distribute vaccines and antibiotics within a few days.

Mr. Hinrichs said bioterrorism preparedness would be better if federal health agencies created uniform rules for reporting disease. Detecting outbreaks might require standardization of reportable conditions or diseases.

States report different information about different disease incidences to national health agencies, impeding federal officials from recognizing outbreaks and responding, he said.

Mr. Hinrichs worked with Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to introduce the National Reportable Conditions Act to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The legislation would create an advisory board to update a list of emerging diseases and establish uniform reporting standards, as well as create an automated electronic reporting system.

Strides since 2001

The UPMC biosecurity center issued a report in September on the nation's positive steps and failures in preparedness since the anthrax attacks.

The report stated that since 2001 the government has improved bioterrorism awareness and training, funding for state and local preparedness and biodefense research and development.

Since the 2001 attacks, federal spending on biodefense research has increased from about $675 million in 2001 to an estimated $3.4 billion in fiscal 2006, according to the Centers for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington.

At Fort Detrick, the Department of Homeland Security is building a $128 million biodefense laboratory, as part of the planned National Interagency Biodefense Campus on post.

The NBACC is scheduled to begin operating in 2008. Also under construction on the campus is a $105 million National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases laboratory, expected to open in early 2008.


Stockpiling adequate supplies of anthrax vaccine -- a process expected to take three more years -- will be critical to coping with another attack, Ms. Borio said.

The Strategic National Stockpile has 40 million doses of anthrax antibiotics on hand to treat people who have been potentially exposed.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has contracted for 85 million doses of anthrax vaccine, which would vaccinate about 10 percent of the U.S. population.

Five million doses of anthrax vaccine are stockpiled, with another 5 million doses on the way. Production of the remaining 75 million doses, a second generation vaccine, has taken longer than expected.

The DHHS awarded California-based company VaxGen Inc. an $877.5 million contract in 2004 to produce for the national stockpile.

Because of many delays, the government gave London company Avecia a $71 million contract to develop a vaccine using the same approach.

Avecia said in late September clinical trials for the vaccine's safety and effectiveness in people were promising.

USAMRIID senior scientist Arthur Friedlander and a team of scientists at the laboratory discovered a key component of the vaccine that has shown promising results in human testing.