Anthrax Scare: Who’s Responsible and Why It Matters

Why would a scientist who had built his career on researching drugs and vaccines to protect his countrymen from anthrax purposely mail letters contaminated with anthrax to two government officials of the very country he is trying to protect? More importantly, was Bruce Ivins, a U.S. Army researcher of 35 years, the true culprit responsible for mailing the letters coated with anthrax in fall 2001 which killed five people? These questions may never be answered by Ivins since he died July 29 from an overdose of Tylenol. Seven years after these letters were mailed to two U.S. Senators among others, the FBI still has not firmly answered the question of who did it. In 2002, Steven Hatfill, an associate of Ivins, was labeled a “person of interest” by previous Attorney General John Ashcroft. Six weeks ago Hatfill won $5.8 million from the government for both associating him with the crime and the subsequent repercussions on his career.

While some wonder if Ivins was merely another innocent victim in the seven year search for a possible home-grown bioterrorist, others believe that his inability to handle the pressure and recent mental instability is anecdotal evidence of his guilt.

Where Did the Spores Come From?

Unfortunately, not all the evidence associated with Ivins has been released, but it is known that recent advances in science have allowed the FBI to run tests that would have been difficult several years ago. For example, it has been reported that the anthrax spores sent to the Senators have been sequenced. This means that researchers and authorities now know every gene and every detail of the DNA that made up the type of anthrax, or strain, sent in 2001. Since there are many different strains of anthrax, knowing which strain was sent may help authorities link Ivins to the crime if he, for example, used the same strain in his lab. Interestingly, the anthrax coating the letters was found to be a mix of two different strains, one from Ivins’ place of employment, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). Debate, however, still surrounds whether Ivins would have been able to produce the very fine powder found lacing the letters.

As the FBI works towards finding solid evidence, scientists are worried about another problem: continued funding. The episode in 2001 caused a surge of economic support for the biodefense budget. Prior to 2001, biodefense research was mainly carried out by USAMRIID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and funded at $685 million per year. After the anthrax scare, funding for new biosafety labs across the country increased to a high of $8.2 billion in 2005 and has recently fallen to $5.4 billion each year. Richard Ebright of Rutgers University stated in the August 8 issue of Science that the reason there was such a surge in funding was because it was believed an outside force had attacked us. Now that we know it was initiated domestically, Ebright believes the “expansion was fraudulent.” He believes the increased research in biodefense has actually made the country less safe than it was before 2001. Others maintain that although the anthrax scare in 2001 was most likely made by a domestic scientist, there are still those outside U.S. borders that could initiate such an attack and we need to be ready for such an event by continued funding and research.

A Frightening Substance

Anthrax is a particularly frightening substance because of what it can do in such a short period of time. Initially, when anthrax is inhaled, it presents as a common cold. According to the CDC, victims usually have a sore throat and mild fever. This is part of the problem, when something as deadly as anthrax mimics the symptoms of something relatively harmless like the common cold, most people don’t go the hospital and don’t get help. The common cold usually lasts a few days and disappears. Unfortunately, after a matter of days, anthrax symptoms turn more deadly by producing “severe breathing problems and shock.” The CDC notes that inhaling anthrax is usually deadly; however, it is not contagious and cannot be passed from person to person. The CDC has posted on their site that in previous cases, victims did not have a runny nose, which is usually associated with the cold or flu. This is poor comfort at best. Another problem is that anthrax is essentially undetectable until it is too late. It does not have a particular color, smell or taste which would alert someone to its presence. The spores are also too small to be seen with the naked eye. The only way one might suspect anthrax contamination is by looking for a powdery substance since the anthrax spores must be mixed with a powder if they are to be used and transported.

Whether biosafety labs face a reduction in funding and more stringent requirements in order to work with such dangerous materials, the science community has been stirred up by these recent events, causing many to wonder what the future holds. The possible actions of such a scientist long held in high regard for his research has shaken the scientific community a bit and led many to wonder if he really did it, why he would do it and how the government is going to propose to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

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