04 August 2008

More Speculation on the Source of the Spores in the 2001 Anthrax Attacks

In multiple comments over the past several days on Glenn Greenwald's blog and at Emptywheel, I have stated a belief that the material in the anthrax attacks of 2001, especially in the letters sent to Senators Daschle and Leahy, could only have come from the Army's Dugway Proving Grounds facility operated by Battelle Memorial Institute. However, after reading an article posted in a link in comments last night at Emptywheel, I now am much more open to the possibility that the material could have been produced outside of a sophisticated facility.

There are two key components to this change in my thinking. First, the article in Chemical and Engineering News by Lois Ember calls into question the early reports that the Dashcle material contained silica. It appears that the scientist in that report mis-spoke and that while silicon was detected, silica was not. Relaying information from Professor Matthew Meselson of Harvard, Ember further points out that closely related bacterial spores are reported to contain silicon, so the silicon in the early analysis may not have been from a source other than the spores themselves. Even more importantly, Ember reports that Meselson and another unnamed scientist have seen electron micrographs of the the attack material and there is no evidence that the spores have been treated with either silica or bentonite, as various media reports over time have suggested. In addition, Meselson and "Ken Alibek" (who previously worked for the Soviet bioweapons program) published a letter in the Washington Post, reprinted here, that makes the same contention.

To illustrate this point, and how straightforward the interpretation would be when looking at electron micrographs, I have copied some images from this website. I can't vouch for the authenticity or provenance of the photos, but they do serve to illustrate the points under discussion.

This photo is purported to be an anthrax spore coated with fumed silica and prepared at Dugway:
Note the "fuzzy" appearance of the spore and that, from the scale bar, it is in the 1 micron size range for a single spore of anthrax. Compare that to another photo said to be from the same publication from Dugway, where there is a clump of uncoated spores:

Note that the uncoated spores have a much smoother appearance. Also note that the scale is different here, as the bar is two microns instead of one. Also, the spores in the upper right part of the clump appear to have a little bit of the coating on them. Now compare these coated and partially coated spores with the following photo:
The photo above is specially important in another way. This appears to be a very clean, "pure" sample of spores labeled as anthrax and coming from USAMRIID (which is at Ft. Detrick). Clearly, it is possible to produce very clean preparations of anthrax spores, if the provenance of the photo is correct.

Any person with a significant amount of training in microbiology, sterile technique and basic biosafety standards, in my opinion, could produce highly purified anthrax spores that are untreated, using only equipment costing a few thousand dollars. Only if the spores are treated with a sophisticated material such as fumed silica does the requirement for an advanced facility and more advanced biosafety protocols come into play. The silica itself is highly dangerous to work with and would require much more sophisticated practices to protect the person preparing the material.

Also reported by Ember and elsewhere, is that DNA sequence information has definitively linked the attack material as genetically identical to the strain used at Ft. Detrick and that the water used to grow and/or process the material came from the northeastern US.

However, if the attack material is not treated in a way that requires sophisticated equipment, then anyone who had access to the Ft. Detrick strain could have produced the attack material without being detected. Further, they did not necessarily have to do the work in the northeastern US, since sterile filtered water from a company formerly named Bethesda Research Laboratory (Bethesda, MD) can be purchased. In fact, someone working on their own, without a sophisticated facility, possibly would find it easier to purchase sterilized water to work with, although they also could rely on simple filter sterilization of local water, as well.

If the FBI closes the antrhax case and releases its information in the next few days, it will be crucial to examine their evidence on the analysis of the attack material. If the material was simply purified, untreated spores, it will be very important to see how they connect this material with Bruce Ivins. The amount used in the attacks was millions of times more than he would have used in his experiments, so it is unlikely he would have produced it at Ft. Detrick without his colleagues noticing. This is especially important since producing this amount would begin to run up against the treaty prohibitions against producing amounts that could be used offensively, so he would have had to do it secretly outside the lab.

Further, there needs to be an explanation of the targeting of Senators Daschle and Leahy, with their letters being mailed after the first fatality was known. That mailing is most easily described as trying to get approval for the Patriot Act, and there has been no introduction of evidence that Ivins was even paying attention to that issue. The first death, even if unintended, should have been sufficient to bring attention to the need for an improved anthrax vaccine such as the one Ivins was working on, and thus fulfilling the motivation most have ascribed to his actions if he were the one behind the attacks.

1 comment:

gandhi said...

Great work. You deserve a medal, sir.