national, anthrax, bioterror
HO, Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program/AP
Bacillus anthracis spores are pictured in this undated photomicrograph from the official U.S.
Department of Defense
anthrax information Web Site.

Letters Containing Suspicious Powder Renew Concerns Over Bioterror Attacks

December 11, 2008 02:13 PM
by Christopher Coats
Just days after the release of a bioterror vulnerability report, 19 state governors received envelopes filled with white powder.

Letters Spotlight Bioterrorism

Although initial reports suggest the envelopes contained a substance likened to flour and have been deemed an “unfortunate prank” by the spokesman for one targeted governor, the deliveries spotlight the vulnerable state of many government offices.

Letters postmarked from Dallas were received at governors' offices in Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana and Rhode Island on Monday, in Alaska on Tuesday and in Maine on Wednesday.

On Thursday, letters arrived in South Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, Tennessee, Utah, New Mexico, Florida and North Dakota, as well as the Virgin Islands.

Early reports suggest the powder in all cases was harmless but samples have been sent to local laboratories for more extensive testing.

The letters arrived just days after the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism, a bipartisan congressional committee, announced the findings of their six-month study concluding that the United States is vulnerable to a bioterrorism attack.

According to the study, "Rapid scientific advances and the global spread of biotechnology equipment and know-how are currently outpacing the modest international attempts to promote biosecurity."

Despite more than $20 billion spent on fighting the threat of bioterrorism, the report found that the threat of bioterrorism has not been truly recognized.

“The more probable threat of bioterrorism should be put on equal footing with the more devastating threat of nuclear terrorism,” the draft says, according to Discover Magazine.

The report also reinforced worries about the security and safety of government biodefense labs across the country. Although the number of such labs has increased exponentially since 2001, the Commission found that adequate protection measures have not been taken.

Background: Anthrax

In October 2001, soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, letters containing anthrax were mailed to several Capitol Hill lawmakers and members of the news media. Five people died by November and 17 others fell ill.

The government initially pursued biowarfare expert Steven J. Hatfill as a “person of interest” in the attacks, but was eventually sued by Hatfill for defamation of character. Later, an FBI investigation began to focus on government scientist Bruce Ivins, but the investigation ended when Ivins committed suicide in August.

Produced by the United States, Russia and across Asia at various times over the last 70 years, anthrax has posed a particularly worrying case for law enforcement agencies: The bacteria grow with simple yeast extract and is highly resilient, with spores keeping for years. Newsweek reported that even before the 2001 anthrax scare, international law enforcement agencies had discovered terrorist groups pursuing and purchasing weaponized anthrax for use in attacks.

Opinion & Analysis: A “heightened threat of bio-attacks”

Despite domestic and international efforts to pursue sources of weaponized anthrax and other bio-weapons, as recently as August 2008, experts were declaring the situation as dire as ever. Citing a combination of advances in biotechnology and easy access to inputs, David Heyman, an expert on bioterrorism, said in an interview with The Hindu that there is a heightened threat of bio-attacks.

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