- WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. scientists want a sample of a new form of anthrax developed
in Russia that may be able to elude the vaccine shots American troops soon
- The organism -- the first known genetically
engineered potential biological warfare threat -- is an altered form of
anthrax, a disease that normally afflicts animals such as cattle and sheep,
but can cause severe illness and death in humans who inhale large doses.
- ``This is a Trojan horse,'' said Col.
Arthur Friedlander, chief of the Bacteriology Division at the U.S. Army
Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md. ``This
is coming in as anthrax, but it's got other bullets in it -- different
- He said the Defense Department is working
through diplomatic and other channels to get the Russians to share this
new organism and other naturally occurring strains of anthrax with U.S.
experts in the field. Friedlander and other biological warfare experts
are confident that the American vaccine, based on a protein called protective
antigen, can protect troops against any anthrax strain that relies on this
protein to facilitate damage to white blood cells.
- They are more uneasy about the Russian
organism, which contains two non-anthrax genes that change the organism
and may alter the way it causes disease. If this is the case, it is conceivable
that the current American vaccine might not be effective, Friedlander said.
- ``We need to get hold of this strain
to test it against our vaccine,'' Friedlander said. ``We need to understand
how this new organism causes disease and we need to test it in animals
other than hamsters that the Russians used.''
- The American vaccine, widely used by
textile mill and livestock workers and veterinarians since the Food and
Drug Administration licensed it in 1970, was given to about 150,000 troops
during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. No inoculation program was initiated
for troops currently deployed in the Gulf in the latest dispute with Iraq,
said Rick Sonntag, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Medical Command at Fort
Sam Houston, Texas.
- This summer, however, the Defense Department
plans to begin administering the U.S. anthrax vaccine to about 100,000
troops deployed to high-risk areas of southwest and northeast Asia. Eventually,
all 2.4 million U.S. military personnel are to be inoculated.
- The new anthrax organism was developed
at the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology in Obolensk, Russia.
The research was formally published in December 1997 in the British scientific
- Development of a new strain through genetic
engineering is something that biological warfare experts around the world
have feared since the advent of such technology in the late 1970s and early
1980s. ``Ever since the dawn of the age of genetic engineering, there's
always been a speculation that somebody could always make designer bugs,''
said Col. Gerald Parker, commander of the institute at Fort Detrick.
- But he cautioned: ``It's one thing to
do this in the lab, but it's a whole different thing to produce it in large
quantities to be used as a weapon. That would be very difficult.''
- At least 10 countries, including Iraq,
are believed to have the capacity to load weapons with dry, powdered anthrax.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's decision to block access to U.N. weapons
inspectors looking for evidence of biological and chemical weapons has
led to America's latest showdown with Iraq.
- Parker said Army scientists had no knowledge
that Iraq also had developed this new organism.
- The Washington Post reported Thursday
that Russia may have sold a fermentation tank to Iraq that could be used
for either brewing animal feed or lethal germs for use in war. But Russia's
Interfax news agency said the Russian Foreign Ministry denied that Russia
concluded any agreements with Iraq or delivered any equipment.
- Paul Jackson, a molecular biologist who
has done research on the genetics of anthrax at Los Alamos National Laboratory
in New Mexico, says the Russian research paper gives details for making
the new organism using standard methods of molecular biology. ``The Russians
have demonstrated that they can do it,'' Jackson says. ``Clearly, any competent
laboratory in the world could do this, too.''
- It is unclear, however, whether the Russian
researchers developed the new organism for offensive or defensive purposes.
The Russian Federation is a signatory to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention,
banning the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin
- The treaty has no provisions for enforcement,
but the U.N. secretary-general has the authority to investigate complaints
of violations. The last time the secretary-general investigated an alleged
infraction was in the late 1980s when Iran complained that Iraq was using
chemical weapons, according to the U.N. Department for Disarmament Affairs
in New York.
- Matthew Meselson, a professor in Harvard
University's Molecular and Cellular Biology Department, is hopeful that
the Russian researchers will share the new organism with U.S. scientists.
- ``If you wanted to keep it secret, you
certainly would not have published it,'' said Meselson, a member of a National
Academy of Sciences committee working to foster cooperation between American
and Russian scientists who work on infectious diseases, including ones
that could be used in biological weapons. ``When scientists work together,
they share things. It depends, of course, on us being equally forthcoming.''