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Bioterrorism Fears Consume U.S. Populace, Budget

America has increased spending to counter bioweapons. But microbiologists think stricter controls will stifle their research.

November 06, 2005|Charles J. Hanley | Associated Press Special Correspondent

CAIRO — The bacteria lie dormant, freeze-dried in sealed ampules, in a refrigerator on a teeming university campus beside the Nile.

They're among Earth's most common germs -- clostridia perfringens, a cause of food poisoning, a specimen for research. But this pathogen can also be a weapon: Iraqi scientists worked for years to mobilize "Agent G" for Saddam Hussein's wars.

In an America nervous over bioterrorism, new laws clamp controls on clostridia and other "select agents," demanding registrations, reporting and background checks on scientists.

Egypt, in a region roiled by terrorism, has no such laws.

But the bacteria at Ain Shams University are kept in a locked refrigerator, accessible by one authorized technician, in a laboratory protected by foolproof electronic keys, said Nabil Magdoub, microbe collection director.

"We have to be alert," he said, but not "unreasonable."

After all, Magdoub said, any hospital is also rife with dangerous microorganisms.

"The American people have become so sensitive towards a lot of normal, ordinary matters," he said, echoing a sentiment heard increasingly in America, where microbiologists fear that ever-stricter controls might stifle their ability to exchange samples and conduct research.

Four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorist use of disease agents to inflict mass casualties looms as the bottom line of America's sum of all fears. Tom Ridge, former Homeland Security secretary, has said authorities don't believe terrorist groups can build nuclear bombs, so bioweapons become the greater threat.

"Anthrax is a concern," Donald Van Duyn of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division said. "You could do as much damage with anthrax and other substances" as with a nuclear bomb.

One attack scenario now used in U.S. planning sees more than 300,000 people in an American city exposed to aerosolized anthrax bacteria spread by terrorists via a truck sprayer, with more than 13,000 dying.

The fear is reflected in the U.S. budget: Spending on civilian "biodefense" has leaped 18-fold since 2001, to $7.6 billion this year. Project Bioshield, to develop bioterrorism countermeasures, awarded its first contract last November, $877 million for 75 million doses of a new anthrax vaccine.

The anthrax scare began when someone mailed anthrax powder through the U.S. postal system in late 2001 and five people died. As a result, "I'd say we get five white-powder threats a week, people calling saying, 'I found white powder. What do I do?' " Van Duyn said.

Because of the high quality of those 2001 anthrax spores, however, experts believe the perpetrator, still at large, was not linked to foreign terrorists, but possibly to the U.S. government's own anthrax program. That research began decades back as an offensive weapons program, but is now considered defensive.

Even a terrorist group as well financed and educated as Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, whose homemade sarin chemical agent killed 12 people in 1995, failed to isolate a virulent strain in four years' work on anthrax.

Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda also pursued anthrax in Afghanistan, captured documents showed. But it turned the job over to a Malaysian with a mere bachelor's degree in biology, U.S. investigators found. He too apparently failed to find a virulent strain -- let alone a workable way to "weaponize" anthrax -- before being arrested in 2001 after returning to Malaysia.

Drying and refining anthrax spores into particles readily inhaled, then engineering equipment to spread them extensively, is a formidable challenge, U.S. congressional researchers noted in a 2004 study. "Even a Ph.D. microbiologist doesn't know the dark arts of putting microbes into weapons," said Jonathan Tucker, a bioweapons expert with California's Monterey Institute for International Studies.

It took Iraqi scientists five years to weaponize anthrax in the 1980s. Meanwhile, others in Hussein's secret program were working on "Agent G," U.N. arms inspectors later learned. The toxin-spewing clostridium perfringens, applied to shrapnel, would kill the wounded by spreading virulent gas gangrene in their shrapnel wounds.

The Iraqis apparently never weaponized Agent G, however, and eventually reported to inspectors they had destroyed all 900 gallons they made.

Today clostridium perfringens is one of 49 microbes on the U.S. list of "select agents" considered potential "severe threats." American laboratories handling the germ must register with the government, their personnel must undergo background checks, and transfers of cultures must be reported.

That list's length, from the toxin abrin to the plague bacteria yersinia pestis, tells some that billions of U.S. dollars won't go far, since only three on the list -- anthrax, smallpox and botulinum toxin -- are being addressed so far in stepped-up biodefense research programs. And that's not counting any new genetically reengineered microbes.

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