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Anthrax - Trail of terror

THE cases just keep coming. Yet it's still not clear who's to blame for the anthrax attacks, or whether there will be more. With little official information so far about the nature and origin of the anthrax, claims and counter-claimshave been flying.

Prominent voices in the US charge that the anthrax is so sophisticated it can only have been produced with the backing of a government. Their suspicions are directed at Iraq, which is known to have made anthrax and other bioweapons.

But New Scientist can reveal that the bacteria used in the attacks is not a strain that Iraq, or the former Soviet Union, mass-produced for weapons. In fact, it is either the same strain the US itself used to make anthrax weapons in the 1960s, or close to it. Neither the strain nor the physical form in which it has been sent out is particularly sophisticated, say bioweapons specialists.

What may matter more than the strain is how big a batch this anthrax came from. This could reveal not only how many more of these mailings we can expect, but also whether the bacteria were brewed in small-scale, makeshift labs or bigger facilities.

Work that could tell us is under way at a lab in the US. Crucial geopolitical decisions could rest on what emerges from the electrophoresis gels and computer programs of the lab's small band of bacterial geneticists.

Last week, Tom Ridge, President Bush's newly appointed Homeland Security adviser, stated that the anthrax sent to Florida, NBC and Senator Tom Daschle were all the same strain. An FBI spokesman in Florida confirmed the widespread reports that this was the Ames strain.

But there has been confusion over what "Ames" means. The name was given to a strain isolated at the US Department of Agriculture's veterinary lab in Ames, Iowa, in the 1930s. This strain, which was later shared with microbiologists around the world, still strikes cattle in the western US. Recent American mili
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Contact: Claire Bowles
claire.bowles@rbi.co.uk
44-207-331-2751
New Scientist
25-Oct-2001


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