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Mysterious Coating May Reveal Source of Anthrax

It has been discovered that the anthrax spores that contaminated Senator Thomas Daschle?s office were treated with a chemical additive so sophisticated that only three nations are capable of making it. Experts in anthrax weapons say they have no doubt that such an additive was present based on the high dispersal rate from the letter sent to Daschle.

?The evidence is patent on its face,? says Alan Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories? Center for National Security and Arms Control. ?The amount of energy needed to disperse the spores [by merely opening an envelope] was trivial, which is virtually diagnostic of achieving the appropriate coating.?

David Franz, formerly of the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and now at the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, says, ?In order for a formulation to do what the one in Daschle?s office appears to have done?be easily airborne?it would require special treatment.?

Genetic testing of the spores found in Daschle?s office, at NBC offices in New York and at the AMI media group in Florida found that the three samples were indistinguishable. The suspicious letter recently sent to Kenya did not contain anthrax.

The United States, the former Soviet Union and Iraq are the only three nations known to have developed the kind of additives that enable anthrax spores to remain suspended in the air, making them more easily inhaled and therefore more deadly. Each nation used a different technique, meaning that microscopic and chemical analyses should be able to reveal which country they originally came from. A government official says that the evidence so far suggests it?s unlikely that the spores were originally produced in the former Soviet Union or Iraq.

Identifying the kind of coating may not completely answer the question of who is using the anthrax, because little is known about how secure the stores of the three countries? anthrax stocks have been during the past few years. The new announcement that the spores were produced militarily differs from public statements made recently by officials who said the spores were not ?weaponized? but instead were ?garden variety.? Those descriptions may be technically true, depending on how one defines the terms, experts say. But the basic and more important truth is that the spores were treated with a sophisticated process, meaning the original source was almost certainly a state-sponsored laboratory.

The ongoing studies on the spores at the at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland are using conventional microscopes and scanning electron microscopes, along with complex chemical analyses that are difficult to conduct even when the bacteria are not dangerous. The analyses are far more difficult because anthrax spores must be studied in specially sealed laboratory enclosures to ensure that they do not escape.

The particle size of the Daschle anthrax, 1 ? to 3 microns in diameter, is extremely small?a first requirement for making ?weapons grade? anthrax spores for warfare or terrorism, according to Senator Bill Frist. But more than that is needed to get anthrax spores to drift easily in the air and spread widely without settling quickly to the ground. This is because tiny particles tend to have electrostatic charges that make the tiniest particles clump together into heavier ones, which then settle to the ground.

One of the primary goals of bioweapons engineers since the 1960s was to figure out how to treat those tiny particles in ways that would neutralize the charges. Properly processed, the tiny particles will remain separate from one another so that a tiny breeze can send them across a room.

In the United States, that problem was solved by Bill Patrick, who developed the process at Fort Detrick as part of the U.S. biological weapons program that ended in 1969. The process is protected by at least five secret patents held by Patrick. It involves freeze drying and chemical processing and was achieved without having to grow vast quantities of spores.

Spores were mass-produced at a Pine Bluff, Arkansas facility. Stocks were destroyed, but Patrick does not know whether ?seed stocks? from which new batches could be grown had also been destroyed. Under the terms of an international treaty banning biological weapons, to which the United States is a signatory, small amounts of biological weapons can be produced to conduct defensive research.

The Russian program, which has been described in detail by Ken Alibek, who ran it for many years before defecting to the United States, required the production of much larger quantities of spores that were more heavily milled than the U.S. spores and used a different kind of freezing and coating process.

The Iraqi technique, uncovered by UN inspectors, was a one-step process that involved drying spores in the presence of aluminum-based clays or silica powders, says Richard Spertzel, who was part of the UN Special Commission team that attempted to uncover and destroy Iraq?s weapons of mass destruction program after the Gulf War. Earlier we were told experts were unsure about whether Iraq had been able to develop a powdered form of anthrax.

?If [U.S. investigators] can get a clue as to how the material in the Daschle letter was prepared, that might narrow the field,? Spertzel says. ?It may not pinpoint it, but it may narrow it.?

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