Ames strain of anthrax limited to a few labs

December 03, 2001

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WASHINGTON, Dec 2: Since the mid-1980s, the US Army laboratory that is the main custodian of the virulent strain of anthrax used in the recent terrorist attacks distributed the bacteria to just five labs in the United States, Canada and England, according to government documents and interviews.

Two of the labs — both in the private sector — received the strain this spring, only a few months before letters tainted with anthrax spores were mailed to New York and Washington, the records show.

The documents, obtained by The Washington Post, offer the first official accounting of how the microbes, known as the Ames strain, were originally disseminated. They show that the distribution of Ames was much more narrow than recently thought, and a top anthrax researcher said the strain may be limited to a dozen labs.

The five original labs also provide a starting point for investigators trying to determine how the Ames strain fell into the hands of a terrorist or terrorists.

Col. Arthur Friedlander, senior military research scientist at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, said the Ames strain was distributed by the military for research purposes under strict controls to “legitimate workers in the field.”

FBI spokesman Mike Kortan said Thursday that the agency’s anthrax probe had moved “way beyond” the short list of labs that received the Ames strain from Fort Detrick. A government official who asked not to be named said the five labs were used to guide investigators trying to trace the movements of the strain to other researchers and institutions.

Transfer records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act show that USAMRIID shared the Ames strain last March with scientists at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, an Albuquerque research institute, and in May and June with the Battelle Memorial Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, corporation involved in anthrax vaccine research.

No records were available before 1997, when a new federal law required researchers to report the transfer of dangerous pathogens to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But USAMRIID officials said the other labs to receive Ames were the Defence Research Establishment Suffield, a Canadian biodefense institute that received Ames in 1998; the US Army Dugway Proving Ground, a test facility in the Utah desert that received the bacteria in 1992; and the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down, a British biodefense institute near Salisbury, England, which received the Ames strain in the mid- 1980s.

“This is not a cavalier thing that one does,” Friedlander said. “When anyone isolates strains, they are shared through the scientific community. That’s how research gets done. It follows a long tradition of collaboration with people that we are well familiar with.

The Ames strain, a virulent form of the anthrax bacteria, is named for the Iowa city in which it was originally isolated. It was used in suspected terrorist attacks that have killed five people and infected 13 in Florida, New York, Connecticut and Washington D.C., according to investigators.

When the anthrax attacks began in early October, many experts believed that the Ames strain, because of its use in vaccine studies, had been distributed to thousands of researchers worldwide. But that number has been reduced considerably in recent weeks. In addition to the five labs that received Ames from USAMRIID, others known to have the Ames strain are Martin E. Hugh-Jones, an anthrax researcher at Louisiana State University, and a lab at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz. Jones recently said he received the Ames strain in the late 1990s from microbiologist Peter Turnbull, then at Porton Down. Turnbull, confirming the transaction in an interview last week, said Porton Down shared Ames with “very few” researchers, whom he declined to name.

Scientists have identified USAMRIID as the primary distributor of Ames. Much of the history of that distribution since the 1980s is spelled out in a few dozen pages of transfer forms that scientists are required to fill out whenever certain kinds of dangerous microbes change hands.

The records document the delivery of Ames bacteria to at least 10 establishments, but only five received Ames in a virulent form that make people sick.

The first agency reported to have received the Ames strainwas the Chemical Defense Establishment, which used the bacteria to test vaccines for troops. Porton Down scientists previously acknowledged sharing the bacteria with the agency’s public health branch, the Center for Applied Microbiology and Research. CAMR officials in turn have acknowledged distributing the bacteria to small number of private researchers.

Fort Detrick’s documents record several exchanges of Ames bacteria between USAMRIID and the Dugway Proving Ground.

The fact that relatively few labs appear to have worked with Ames could narrow the search for the person or group behind the deadly attacks, Friedlander suggested.—Dawn/LAT-WP News Service (c) The Washington Post