Anthrax - Trail of terror

tary research publications also mention an "Ames" strain isolated from a cow in Iowa in 1980.

However, the scientists analysing the anthrax from the attacks are comparing its DNA with a library of strains collected from all over the world.

And in this collection, what's called "Ames" has more interesting origins. It emerged in the mid-1980s from a freezer at the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, the British biodefence establishment at Porton Down, Wiltshire.

Porton Down had acquired it from the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Maryland. It is, say those who compiled the library, the strain the US used when it produced anthrax weapons. That programme ended in 1969, and the mass-produced anthrax was destroyed, although the US and its allies kept samples. To be identified as "Ames", by these scientists therefore, the anthrax used in the recent attacks must either be the American military strain or one that's very similar.

So why choose this strain? "Ames is certainly a challenge to any vaccine," says Martin Hugh-Jones of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. When lab animals immunised with the vaccine now being given to thousands of American troops are exposed to anthrax, many are still killed by the Ames strain.

Alternatively, the attackers may simply have wanted a strain of proven virulence that's hard to trace, says Ken Alibek, former deputy head of the Soviet bioweapons programme. "If I were a terrorist I would certainly not use a strain known to be from my country," he told New Scientist.

The Soviets did not mass-produce Ames, says Alibek. Nor did the Iraqis. Like Britain in the 1940s, Iraq favoured the Vollum strain, isolated at Oxford in 1930, which has been identified in samples from its Al Hakam plant. And the White House reiterated last week that all anthrax mass-produced in the US was destroyed after 1969.

Despite this, Am

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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