Germs and spores difficult to use as a terror weapon

Deadliest recent case was accident in Russia

October 10, 2001|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Though experts place anthrax high on the list of potential biological weapons, only one terrorist group is known to have unleashed it.

Fortunately, the attempt was a failure.

Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that killed 12 people in 1995 by releasing sarin gas in a Tokyo subway station, had tried eight times over the previous five years to spark epidemics of anthrax and botulism, another toxin. A graduate student who belonged to the cult testified that the group had sprayed agents from the rooftops and from the back of a van.

"These guys were lousy microbiologists,' said Dr. Clarence J. Peters, director of a bioterrorism research institute at the University of Texas at Galveston. The cultists, he said, used a vaccine strain that was incapable of spreading disease.

The world, however, has seen the human suffering that a nefarious use of anthrax could cause. In 1979, an accidental release of anthrax from a Soviet biological weapons facility in Sverdlovsk, east of the Ural Mountains, killed 68 people who lived downwind.

Though most of the victims lived within several kilometers of the plant, dead livestock were found up to 50 kilometers away.

The accidental release "demonstrated the lethal potential of anthrax aerosols," said scientists in a 1999 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Early accounts of anthrax date back 3,500 years. It could have accounted for two plagues that afflicted Egypt in 1491 B.C., said Stanford University scientists in a 1999 publication.

Throughout history, humans have contracted anthrax from infected cows, sheep, horses and goats. People have inhaled spores lurking on carcasses, wool and hides, ingested them in contaminated meat, or become infected through contact with the skin.

The tiny spores, encapsulated in a hard shell that insulates them from extreme temperatures, can persist in soil for many years.

Virgil, the Greek poet and scientist, gave a graphic account of the cutaneous, or skin form of anthrax: "If anyone wore a garment made from the tainted wool, his limb was soon attacked by inflamed papules and a foul exudent, and if he delayed too long to remove the material a violent inflammation covered the parts it had touched."

Though natural outbreaks have occurred over the centuries, they have seldom involved large numbers of people. That is because the disease cannot be transmitted from person to person.

Inhalation anthrax is the most deadly form of the disease and is hard to cure even with modern antibiotics unless they are given very early. It is also comparatively rare, in part because a person must inhale a large number of spores to become infected.

Before last week, when 63-year-old Robert Stevens of Florida was found to have that form of anthrax, the last known case in the United States occurred in 1976.

That year, a California weaver and yarn shop operator who had inhaled dust from contaminated wool died of the disease.

In 1957, four employees of a textile factory in Manchester, N.H., died after inhaling anthrax from goat hair imported from Pakistan. The hair was used in the manufacture of linings for men's suits.

In recent years, there have been several anthrax hoaxes - anonymous calls or letters from people threatening to disperse anthrax into the environment.

In 1998, two men were arrested in Las Vegas and charged with possessing deadly anthrax germs. FBI agents seized 40 Petri dishes and a white cooler. Later tests proved the specimens were harmless anthrax vaccines, and the charges were dropped.

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