Anthrax - Trail of terror

es would not have been have been hard to find. Samples of the weapons strain were kept in the US and elsewhere. "The South African collection had hundreds of different strains," Alibek points out. And Wouter Basson, former head of the South African bioweapons programme, made several trips to Libya after the fall of the apartheid government in 1994. Ames could also, of course, have been obtained by someone in the US.

Important clues also come from the size of the particles used in the attacks. According to reports last week, they had been milled down to a few micrometres, which is optimal for causing the inhalation form of the disease.

"The terrorists at least had access to considerable know-how," concludes Michael Powers of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Washington DC. "This suggests some level of state involvement."

But Alibek dismisses claims that milling the powder this fine is too hard for mere terrorists. "You can use readily available equipment to do this," he says. His view is supported by a secret experiment last year called Project Bacchus, in which employees of the US Department of Defense covertly produced a kilogram of bacteria similar to anthrax. It was milled to a few micrometres using machines available openly in the US.

Nevertheless, the attacks have caused relatively few inhalation cases so far, which suggests that the spores were not blended with the anti-caking chemicals used in anthrax weapons to promote airborne spread. This is the secret of "weaponised" anthrax, says Alibek. He says sending the anthrax in the mail is a "very primitive" way of distributing it, and suspects the attackers don't have much material to work with.

We could soon know. Paul Keim's team at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff has pioneered the genetic analysis of anthrax bacilli. Recently, says team member Kimothy Smith, they have found that some DNA regions mutate

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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