U.S. subpoenas labs in hunt for anthrax strain samples

Move designed to narrow suspect pool in attacks

February 27, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In an important step for narrowing the pool of anthrax suspects, the Justice Department is sending subpoenas to microbiology laboratories across the country for samples of the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis, the kind used in the letter attacks in the fall.

Scientists working for the federal government said they hoped that studying the samples' genetic fingerprints would help determine which of 12 or more laboratories is the likely source of the bacteria in the attacks.

Some private experts expressed surprise that subpoenas for the samples were going out only now, more than four months after the Ames strain was identified as the germ in the letters.

But federal law enforcement officials defended their approach as sound, saying it was purposefully deliberate and thorough to ensure that no logical bit of evidence went unexamined and that assembled clues were incontestable.

"The investigation has its own natural course," an official said. "We're making progress," even if the pace at times seems slow.

One factor slowing the subpoenas for Ames samples, the official added, was the need to develop a scientific protocol that describes exactly how the samples are to be taken and shipped. It continues for pages.

"That took time to develop," the official said.

The instructions are meant to ensure that the samples are kept alive and pure and that the process of obtaining them, if need be, can one day stand up in court.

"There are serious health risks and a potential for danger," another federal law enforcement said.

Institutions that have received the subpoenas include the University of New Mexico and Louisiana State University, which maintains one of the nation's largest anthrax collections.

A spokesman for the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque, Sam Giammo, said its anthrax scientist received the subpoena yesterday and would send a sample of its Ames strain next week.

It was unclear which other institutions have received subpoenas, although private experts estimated that the number would probably exceed 12.

Katy Delaney, a spokeswoman for the Battelle Memorial Institute, a military contractor with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, said her company would not confirm whether it had received a subpoena but added that it always cooperated with law enforcement officials.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which is said to have the Ames strain, also declined to say whether it had received a subpoena.

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