News Stories on Human Research Protection and
Commentary by Vera Hassner Sharav
February 13, 2002
Some key questions that the FBI may not have considered in their search for the anthrax letter sender
Today’s New York Times reports that a major break may have come in the hunt for the anthrax letter sender. The NYT article is followed by a short excerpt from an in-depth column by Dr. Meryl Nass, In Search of the Anthrax Attacker, in which she assumes the role of detective, posing several key questions that the FBI may or may not have considered:
For example, Why had the anthrax been sent in letters, rather than released in ventilation systems, tunnels or subways?
She explains what makes the Ames strain extremely lethal, and asks: who had access to this material, or knew the method for its production?
Who had the means?
The attacker may well have read Patrick’s report, or even used it as a model. [William Patrick’s 1999 analysis of anthrax sent by mail was written for a defense contractor report.]
Who had access to this report?
Who are the beneficiaries of a bioterrorism scare?
[To read the article from the New York Times, click on address below:]
IN SEARCH OF THE ANTHRAX ATTACKER:
Following Valuable Clues By Meryl Nass, MD
"Senior Bush administration officials have privately said that little progress is being made in the anthrax investigation, which has involved hundreds of investigators, [who] are no closer to finding the culprit." So reported Todd J Gillman and Michelle Mittelstadt of the Dallas Morning News on January 31.
It has been four months since the first case of inhalation anthrax was diagnosed. Last week, the FBI announced that it would be sending flyers to 500,000 residents of the Trenton, New Jersey region, asking for leads. This week, the FBI arranged with the American Society for Microbiology to e-mail its US membership, in another.
One area of wasted investigative effort was the search for the origin of the "Ames" anthrax strain used. How would tracing back the Ames strain solve the case? Ames anthrax could have been stolen, shared, or dug up from Texas soil. More likely, it was removed from one of the labs by a scientist with access.
No matter when the government first got its supply of Ames, the strain was eventually used to create a government supply of dry, weaponized anthrax, which at this time appears to be identical to that used in the attacks.
Of more importance to the investigation than the origin of Ames is the origin of both: a) the material added to the anthrax spores that causes them to separate from each other, greatly enhancing virulence, and b) the method that assured the spores were relatively uniform in size, and were sized for optimal lethality.
They are what made Ames extremely lethal, and they could be used with other strains.
The real question is: who had access to this material, or knew the method for its production? A clue: you will find the attacker among the very small clique of bioweaponeers with this specialized knowledge or access to the weaponized end product.
All appropriate biosafety facilities, here and in other nations, should have their logs reviewed. It should be easy to construct lists of those who worked at Detrick and knew Assaad, those who had access to weaponized anthrax or knew the recipe, and those with access to the hot suites. However, if there do exist several attackers, the overlap might be hard to find. This person, or his program, if such is the case, is likely to benefit nicely from the anthrax scare.
The anthrax attacks were a heinous crime in a number of ways. First, they caused the deaths of five innocent civilians, who in military jargon might be considered "collateral damage." Second, they directly attacked the center of our government, and our free press. Third, they appear to have been motivated by the calculation that the country needed to be scared to death, in order to act in a way the attacker wanted. And so we have, allocating billions of taxpayer dollars for responding to and preparing for bioterrorism. That is not how decisions should be made in a democracy. Finally, biological attacks are a clandestine, cowardly method of attack, in which the perpetrator is usually difficult to identify.
If the attacker remains free, the attractiveness of future biological attack only increases.
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