The USA Patriot Act and the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act, both enacted not long after the 9/11 attacks, contained measures to make it harder for anybody to get their hands on the kind of pathogens one might need to launch a bioterror attack. There was just one problem: The rules also slowed down and constrained our own scientists’ abilities to learn about those pathogens, according to a study out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To be specific, lead researcher Elizabeth Casman found while there was a touch of good news—the laws didn’t appear to deter new scientists from entering the field—the major effect of those acts has been to make research on ebola virus and anthrax much more expensive, and much slower.
The researchers did find an increase in the total number of papers published. But before the laws, 17 anthrax papers appeared per million dollars of funding. With the restrictions, only three papers appeared per million dollars of funding. For ebola, the numbers dropped from 14 to six papers per million dollars. Figures for the control stayed the same [Scientific American].
Last week, seemingly out of nowhere, Oklahoma State University president Burns Hargis pulled the plug on a federally funded research project that would have tested anthrax vaccines on baboons, and euthanized the primates at the experiment’s end. This week more details are beginning to come out regarding why Hargis made his call. Basically, his office says, they didn’t want to deal with possibly violent animal rights protesters.
The plan was to expose the animals to the spores of the attenuated Sterne strain of anthrax and eventually advance to the Ames strain — the fully encapsulated and virulent form of the bacterium that was used in the anthrax attacks of 2001 — and observe the pathobiology of infection. It was part of a collaborative multi-institutional NIH grant originally awarded for $12 million in 2004, and renewed in September of this year for another $14.3 million [The Scientist]. Oklahoma State would have hosted only a small part of the research, and the university’s animal testing committee approved the project unanimously.
The biodefense lab that was associated with the anthrax mailings of 2001 is temporarily shutting down most research to allow officials to make a thorough accounting of every germ, virus, and poison that’s being stored at the facility. The lab, at Fort Detrick in Maryland, has come under intense scrutiny since the FBI accused researcher Bruce Ivins of sending the 2001 letters laced with anthrax. (Ivins killed himself while under investigation.) Now, officials want to comb through storage rooms and refrigerators to ensure that every dangerous agent is listed in the lab’s inventory. The suspension started Friday, and the tedious process of counting thousands of vials could take up to three months, institute spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden said [AP].
The order to stop most work came after a spot check last month found 20 samples of Venezuelan equine encephalitis in a box of vials instead of the 16 that had been listed in the institute’s database [Washington Post], officials say. “I believe that the probability that there are additional vials of BSAT [biological select agents and toxins] not captured in our … database is high,” Skvorak wrote in a memo to employees [ScienceInsider]. Researchers at the lab work with some of the most dangerous infectious diseases known, like anthrax and Ebola, but officials stressed that they do not know of any missing vials of lethal substances.
Somewhere in the world within the next five years, terrorists are likely to use a biological agent like anthrax or Ebola in a major attack, a new congressional report predicts. The report acknowledges that terrorist groups still lack the needed scientific and technical ability to make weapons out of pathogens…. But it warns that gap can be easily overcome, if terrorists find scientists willing to share or sell their know-how. “The United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists,” the report states [AP].
The report, which will be officially released on Wednesday by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism, covers the threat of both biological and nuclear attacks. It argues that bioterrorism is a greater threat: Nuclear facilities are closely guarded, the report says, while many civilian labs contain dangerous pathogens and could more easily be breached. The number of such “high-containment” labs in the United States has tripled since 2001, yet U.S. officials have not implemented adequate safeguards to prevent deadly germs from being stolen or accidentally released, it says. “The rapid growth in the number of such labs in recent years has created new safety and security risks which must be managed,” the draft report states [Washington Post].
At a tense congressional hearing yesterday, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that an independent panel will review the scientific evidence that the FBI says proves government scientist Bruce Ivins’ guilt in the anthrax mailings of 2001. As Ivins killed himself in August before he could be indicted, the FBI has been forced to present much of its evidence to the public and has received criticism from some scientific experts and lawmakers who say the FBI hasn’t proved its case.
At the hearing, Senator Pat Leahy (who was a target of the anthrax attacks) told Mueller categorically that he simply does not believe that Ivins was the prime culprit if he was a participant at all, and said he is absolutely convinced that there were others involved in the preparation and mailing of the anthrax [Salon blog]. Leahy argued that the biodefense facility where Ivins worked, Ft. Detrick, didn’t have the capacity to produce the strain of anthrax found in the letter that was sent to him.
Yesterday the FBI discussed the scientific investigation that led them to accuse the army scientist Bruce Ivins of sending the 2001 anthrax letters. The agency is attempting to prove its case against the researcher in the wake of his suicide but acknowledges that it will be difficult to reach closure without a trial. “We’ll never put all the questions to rest,” said Vahid Majidi, head of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. “There’s always going to be a spore on a grassy knoll” [CNN].
The FBI’s case hinges on the genetic analysis of the anthrax found in the letters, which was eventually found to match anthrax in a flask in Ivins’ lab. Over the past several years, the FBI searched worldwide to gather 1,070 samples of deadly Ames-strain anthrax — the type used in the mailings. Only eight of those anthrax samples contained four distinct genetic mutations — the same mutations found in the mailings. And each of those eight samples, officials allege, could be traced to parent material known as RMR 1029 that was maintained by Ivins in a one-liter flask he controlled in a Ft. Detrick lab [Los Angles Times].
FBI officials say they then interviewed more than 100 people who had access to that flask, and used conventional police work to determine who could have created the anthax powder and mailed the letters during the crucial days in September 2001.
The U.S. Government is closing the book on the anthrax case, pointing the blame at former Army scientist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide last week as prosecutors prepared to bring charges. The Justice Department said it was confident it could have convicted the scientist, who spent his career developing anthrax vaccines and cures at the bioweapons lab at Fort Detrick, Md. [AP]
Authorities say that DNA tests showed Ivins’ lab contained anthrax spores identical to those used in the attacks, and that building records show the scientist working late nights in the lab just before both of the 2001 attacks. U.S. Atty. Jeffrey A. Taylor says Ivins’ emails show a man growing frustrated with his lab work as his anthrax vaccine project had stalled, and that contributed to Ivins’ problem with mental illness. Taylor suggests that Ivins may have wanted to create a situation that would show the world the necessity of his vaccine, and that could have been the motive behind the attacks.
Last week’s suicide by a government biodefense researcher who had been linked to the mailing of anthrax-laced letters in 2001 has raised thorny questions about whether the benefits of biodefense research outweigh the risks. Researcher Bruce Ivins had reportedly been informed by the FBI that he was about to be indicted for murder in the incident that killed five people and sent 17 more to the hospital.
Some observers point out that biodefense research has vastly increased since the terrorist attacks of 2001, and raise the question: Has the unprecedented boom in biodefense research made the country less secure by multiplying the places and people with access to dangerous germs? … Nationwide, an estimated 14,000 people work at about 400 laboratories and have permission to work with so-called select agents, which could be used in a bioterror attack, although not all are authorized to handle the most toxic substances, like anthrax [The New York Times].