Some Lessons Learned From the Anthrax Attacks

Reporter / by Michael Stebbins /

Five years after anthrax-laden letters killed five people, we know a lot more about the FBI's forensic investigation, but even less about the possible assailant.

The outcome is well documented: four to five letters mailed, 22 anthrax infections, five deaths, and at least one murderer.

The investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks is one of the largest and most expensive in history—in five years, the FBI has conducted 9,100 interviews and issued more than 6,000 subpoenas. It’s not as if the agency has been sitting around twiddling its thumbs.

More impressive than the thousands of interviews is the forensic setup that led to the identification of the fourth letter, which was addressed to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). (The first three letters were opened by staff members of Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD), Tom Brokaw at NBC News, and The New York Post.) In a paper published in the August issue of a relatively obscure journal, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Doug Beecher of the FBI’s Hazardous Materials Response Unit describes how the agency was able to quickly build a 6,000-square-foot biohazard containment facility to screen more than two hundred 55-gallon drums full of mail from Capitol Hill.

Inside the barrels were 642 separate bags of mail. Each was swabbed for the presence of anthrax. After taking air samples from the 20 bags that tested positive, one proved to have a very high concentration of anthrax spores. Each piece of mail from the 20 bags was photographed against a window to get an idea of its contents.

As soon as the envelope containing the powder-laden letter to Senator Leahy was held up, the investigators knew they’d found a fourth letter.

It had taken them only four days to devise a large-scale forensic screening for a biological agent, inspect a tremendous amount of mail, and identify the letter, all under extremely hazardous conditions. 

Perhaps the most significant revelation in Beecher’s article is that the anthrax spores were not coated with silica or any other agent designed to increase aerosolization of the spores. This means that the anthrax was almost pure spores, making it less likely that it was produced by someone with specific bioweapons experience. Despite this evidence, many press reports, including one from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, indicated the anthrax was produced by someone who knew how to weaponize it.

“[The] persistent credence given to this impression fosters misconceptions,” Beecher wrote in his article, “which may misguide research and preparedness efforts.” But it was the FBI that decided not to clarify the coating issue, in essence allowing the perpetuation of conspiracy theories about the source of the anthrax and the traits of the assailant.

Perhaps the most significant revelation in Beecher’s article is that the anthrax spores were not coated with silica or any other agent designed to increase aerosolization of the spores.

Due to Beecher’s revelation, the press is now asserting that the FBI is widening their investigation to include people with microbiological expertise, but not bioweapons experience. Yet the FBI has reduced the number of fulltime investigators working on the case to 17 from more than 30 two years ago.

The FBI has yet to disclose how they found the mailbox from which the letters were mailed. Yet according to a source familiar with the investigation, a team of investigators, who worked at night so as not to alarm residents, took samples from 628 mailboxes in the Trenton, NJ area and tested for any trace of anthrax. In July of 2002, 10 months after the letters were sent, they identified a mailbox across the street from the Princeton University campus that still housed live anthrax spores.

As a direct result of the letters, the Federal government dramatically increased biodefense spending, which included increasing anthrax research funding by over a thousand-fold. In addition, in July 2004, Congress passed Project Bioshield, a $5.6 billion fund to “improve medical countermeasures protecting Americans against a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) attack.”

Part of the funding from Project Bioshield was earmarked for the development and stockpiling of a new vaccine against anthrax. (The old vaccine consisted of six shots administered over 18 months and had nasty side effects, including death.) But, because of a lack of an established market and the general high maintenance associated with government contracts, no major pharmaceutical companies stepped up. 

Naturally, the government awarded a single $887 million contract for 75 million doses of anthrax vaccine to Vaxgen, a company that has never brought a product to market and was recently barred from the NASDAQ due to accounting irregularities. Scientific stumbles further hampered production of the new vaccine, delaying delivery beyond 2007 and kicking off a lobbying battle between VaxGen and Emergent, the company that produces the old vaccine. Millions of lobbying dollars later, the government contracted Emergent for a total of 10 million doses of the old vaccine at a cost of $243 million.

Most experts would be hard pressed to call Project Bioshield anything but a disaster.

Terrorism experts predict that we will see a significant event on U.S. soil in the next few years. Nonetheless, our election-bound Congress will leave this session without having passed a new biodefense bill that fully addresses our ongoing problems with public health preparedness.

At least we know the FBI can quickly respond to new bioterror attacks. They just may not tell us what they’ve found. —Michael Stebbins is the author of Sex, Drugs & DNA: Science’s Taboos Confronted and the Director of Biology Policy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Originally published October 2, 2006

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