Russians Develop New Anthrax Strain

U.S. scientists want a sample of a new form of anthrax developed in Russia that may be impervious to a vaccine American troops will soon get.

The organism--the first known genetically engineered potential biological warfare threat--is an altered form of anthrax, a disease that normally afflicts animals such as cattle and sheep, but can cause severe illness and death in humans who inhale large doses.

"This is a Trojan horse," said Col. Arthur Friedlander, chief of the Bacteriology Division at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md. "We need to get hold of this strain to test it against our vaccine."

He said the Defense Department is working through diplomatic and other channels to get the Russians to share this new organism and other naturally occurring strains of anthrax with U.S. experts in the field.

The new anthrax organism was developed at the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology in Obolensk, Russia. The research was formally published in December 1997 in the British scientific journal Vaccine.

At least 10 countries, including Iraq, are believed to have the capacity to load weapons with dry, powdered anthrax. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's decision to block access to U.N. weapons inspectors looking for evidence of biological and chemical weapons has led to America's latest showdown with Iraq.

Paul Jackson, a molecular biologist who has done research on the genetics of anthrax at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, says the Russian research paper gives details for making the new organism using standard methods of molecular biology.

"The Russians have demonstrated that they can do it," Jackson says. "Clearly, any competent laboratory in the world could do this, too."

It is unclear, however, whether the Russian researchers developed the new organism for offensive or defensive purposes. The Russian Federation is a signatory to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, banning the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons.

Development of a new strain through genetic engineering is something that biological warfare experts around the world have feared since the advent of such technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"Ever since the dawn of the age of genetic engineering, there's always been a speculation that somebody could always make designer bugs," said Col. Gerald Parker, commander of the institute at Fort Detrick.

But Parker says producing anthrax in large quantities for warfare would be very difficult.

Friedlander and other biological warfare experts are confident that the American vaccine, based on a protein called protective antigen, can protect troops against any anthrax strain that relies on this protein to facilitate damage to white blood cells.

The American vaccine, widely used by textile mill and livestock workers and veterinarins since the Food and Drug Administration licensed it in 1970, was given to about 150,000 troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

No inoculation program was initiated for troops currently deployed in the Gulf in the latest dispute with Iraq, officials say. This summer, however, the Defense Department plans to begin administering the U.S. anthrax vaccine to about 100,000 troops deployed to high-risk areas of southwest and northeast Asia.

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