Anthrax alarms recall man's years of Army research

Success of terrorists puzzles microbiologist

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 26, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The anthrax attacks have dredged up a lot of memories for Joseph V. Jemski, who spent much of his career turning the deadly bacteria into a weapon for the U.S. Army. Two questions have troubled him: How did the terrorists come up with such virulent powder? And how did they keep from killing themselves in the process?

"I'm a little confused about the lethality of this stuff," he said yesterday. "I spent 20 years trying to figure out how to disseminate anthrax in adequate concentrations to infect people. And now I find out all you have to do is put the spores in an envelope and mail it."

From 1953 until 1972, Jemski worked for the United States' biological weapons program, taking toxic brews of anthrax and other dangerous organisms and testing them on animals in a 40-foot steel test sphere.

He wrestled with the same questions now the stuff of the daily anthrax news: particle size and spore concentration, strain virulence and lethal inhaled dose.

After President Richard M. Nixon stopped production of offensive bioweapons in 1969, Jemski helped destroy existing stocks before shifting to vaccine research for a decade as part of the biodefense program at Fort Detrick.

The holder of a doctorate in microbiology retired in 1983 to a quiet life in Frederick. But his phone began to ring regularly a few years ago as current U.S. officials, worried about the terrorist threat, sought the advice of the man who wrote a seminal chapter on creating bioweapons from toxic aerosols - in 1965.

His two questions are close to the center of the investigation by medical detectives, postal inspectors and FBI agents to find out who mailed the lethal letters.

To produce anthrax powder fine enough to squirt from an envelope and infect at least four postal workers, the perpetrators must have equipment and expertise that might offer critical clues to their identities.

And unless they are already dead - a remote possibility, but one officials can't rule out in an era of suicidal terror - the terrorists must have protected themselves while making the anthrax powder and pouring it into the envelopes.

Jemski estimated that the Daschle sample might have had roughly a billion spores per gram, "which is pretty dangerous stuff." Possibly they got vaccinations and took antibiotics for protection, he said. Otherwise they absolutely would have had to use a biological safety cabinet, which uses a glass screen and negative air pressure to keep particles away from the microbiologist.

Either possibility might have left a trail - most likely a trail in the United States, Jemski and other experts say.

Yesterday, federal officials confirmed that the anthrax from Florida, New York and Washington all were of the same genetic strain, the Ames strain widely used in laboratories and found in animal outbreaks in nature.

They also said the extraordinarily fine powder in the letter sent to Sen. Tom Daschle - with particles ranging from 1 to 3 1/2 microns, the ideal size for infecting the lungs - contrasted sharply with the grainy, almost lumpy powder with a very similar letter sent to The New York Post.

"It would suggest to me that we're dealing with small-batch production," said David Siegrist, who studies biological terrorism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "The guy could be going through a learning curve," making finer powder on some days than on others.

Siegrist said the evidence of multiple anthrax batches "suggests it's being made in the U.S.A. It's disquieting that he can make it here, that some of it is very high quality, and that he can presumably make more."

A report in The Washington Post yesterday said the Daschle anthrax powder had been given a sophisticated chemical treatment - to prevent static electricity from causing clumping - perfected only in the United States, Iraq and the former Soviet Union.

But Dr. Donald A. Henderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies and a top government adviser on bioterror, said "that doesn't necessarily help you" narrow the field.

Impoverished Russian scientists might have sold expertise or anthrax to other countries; for instance, Iran has recently been recruiting Russian biological weapons experts, he said. Similarly, a renegade Iraqi expert could have aided a terrorist group.

Beyond Russia and Iraq, perhaps 10 countries have secret bioweapons programs, Henderson said. Judging their sophistication is tough for U.S. intelligence because, unlike nuclear and chemical programs, biological programs use equipment and supplies with legitimate industrial purposes, he said.

In addition to the scientific quest, investigators are analyzing the handwriting and spelling of the letters sent to Daschle, Brokaw and The New York Post. The FBI is saying nothing, but nongovernment experts can't even agree on whether the writer is a native speaker of English.

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