It has been discovered that the bacteria used for the anthrax attacks in the U.S. is either the strain we used to make anthrax weapons in the 1960s, or close to it. It is not a strain that Iraq or the former Soviet Union mass-produced for weapons.
Some experts have recently said that the fact that the anthrax was ?weaponized? (that is, ground into a fine powder) suggests it was produced with the backing a government such as Iraq. But neither the strain nor the physical form of the anthrax is particularly sophisticated, bioweapons specialists say now. This means that the anthrax that has been sent through the mail could be the work of a lone, Unabomber-type terrorist, who may or may not be aligned with fundamentalist extremists.
The anthrax sent to Florida, NBC and Senator Tom Daschle were all the same strain, which is the Ames strain that was developed in a U.S. laboratory. The scientists analyzing the anthrax compared its DNA with a library of strains collected from all over the world. To be identified as Ames, the anthrax must either be the American military strain or one that is very similar.
The Ames is a good choice for the attacks, because it is more likely than other strains to cause disease in animals immunized with the standard vaccine, which is now being given to U.S. troops. It is also not traceable to any particular country, since it was sent to scientists all over the world.
Ken Alibek, the former deputy head of the Soviet bioweapons program who defected to the West, says the Soviets did not mass-produce the Ames strain. He says that Iraq used the Vollum strain. ?The South African collection had hundreds of different strains,? Alibek says. It?s known that the former head of the South African bioweapons program visited Libya after the fall of the apartheid government in 1994. The anthrax particles used in the attacks were milled down to a few micrometers, so they could be easily inhaled. However, Alibek says that ?you can use readily available equipment to do this. It isn?t rocket science.? The attacks have caused relatively few inhalation cases so far, which suggests that the spores were not blended with anti-caking chemicals to promote airborne spread, which Alibek calls the real secret of weaponizing anthrax. He also suspects that the attackers don?t have much material to work with.
Paul Keim?s team at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff developed a method of genetically analyzing anthrax bacilli. Team member Kimothy Smith says they have found that some DNA regions mutate frequently, as often as once in every 1,000 cell divisions. By comparing the amount of mutation, ?you can say with a high degree of confidence how many bacterial generations separate an unknown strain from closely related reference strains.? This can pinpoint the exact strain of anthrax that a sample comes from. And a small batch of anthrax will have undergone many fewer cell divisions than a big batch.
Analysis can reveal whether the anthrax came from a small sample of the kind a single terrorist could obtain, or the huge vats of a state-sponsored bioweapons facility.
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