CASE CLOSED … what really happened in the 2001 anthrax attacks?

* Ike Solem & Ed Lake argue about 6 questions the FBI either has or has not answered

Posted by DXer on June 16, 2009

Lew’s new novel CASE CLOSEDCC - front cover - small

explores the FBI’s failed investigation of the 2001 anthrax case …

* see CASE CLOSED VIDEO on YouTube

* purchase CASE CLOSED (paperback)

IKE SOLEM comments …

Six Anthrax Science Questions the FBI Has Yet to Answer

  1. What were the four mutations the FBI says it used to link the anthrax in the envelopes to Bruce Ivins at USAMRIID?
  2. What are the odds of a false positive—that is, the odds that the spore populations in Ivins’s flask RMR-1029 and in the envelopes weren’t related but shared the same four mutations by chance?
  3. Eight samples had anthrax with all four mutations; one of those came from a lab other than USAMRIID. On what basis was this lab ruled out as the origin of the letters?
  4. How did the FBI rule out the possibility that others at USAMRIID with access to Ivins’s lab prepared the envelopes?
  5. How exactly did Ivins, if he was the perpetrator, produce an easily dispersible powder from his anthrax culture?
  6. What led the FBI to suspect Steven Hatfill in the earlier years of the investigation?

ED LAKE responds …

Almost all of the answers to your questions have been known for a long time.

  1. There were “well over a dozen” mutations in the attack anthrax.  Experts selected the four that were most stable and which would be most easy to detect in other samples.  Those four were used to go through the 1,070+ samples to find samples that included those mutations.  Ed: the FBI needs to identify the 4 mutations.
  2. Since mutations are basically random and occur very rarely (about once in a billion generations), the odds of the same four mutations showing up in a sample by pure chance is virtually non-existent.  It would be many trillions to one. Ed: what scientist calculated these odds?
  3. Presumably, they used the other mutations in the attack anthrax to determine the exact source.  It’s like using race to reduce the number of possible fathers in a paternity suit, and when you’ve reduced the number down that way, you then use other DNA factors to find the exact father.  If they didn’t do it that way, it was done with standard police procedures. Ed: not “presumably” … the FBI needs to say what it actually did.
  4. The same way that you reduce the number of suspects in any murder case: You check alibis, motivation, capabilities, etc.  Ed: this answer doesn’t cut it. The FBI needs to say how they ruled out others.
  5. He routinely made purified spores.  So, that wasn’t a problem.  The only thing he did that is not normally done is to dry the spores.  And there are many ways to do that.  The spores will dry all by themselves if you don’t take precautions to prevent it. Ed: this is your opinion. The FBI needs to say what they think and the basis for their conclusions.
  6. Dr. Hatfill was never a “suspect.”  A number of scientists acting as amateur detectives and led by Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg decided that Dr. Hatfill was the most likely person to have sent the anthrax letters.  They campaigned for SEVEN MONTHS to get Dr. Hatfill publicly investigated.  The New York Times joined in on the campaign, and so did a few other media outlets.  The campaign included speeches at universities and at conferences, and persuading people to call their congressmen.  Eventually, after SEVEN MONTHS of campaigning, Dr. Rosenberg was called before some senate staffers who listened to her arguments, and then those staffers virtually demanded that the FBI investigate Dr. Hatfill.  About a week later, Dr. Hatfill’s apartment was publicly searched for the first time – making him a household name. Ed: Dr. Hatfill was named a “person of interest” by Attorney General Ashcroft and hounded by the FBI for years before they paid him $5.8 million to go away. The FBI are big boys who are rarely known to respond to public, media or even Congressional pressure. It isn’t logical to blame the FBI’s actions regarding Dr. Hatfill on Dr. Rosenberg.

14 Responses to “* Ike Solem & Ed Lake argue about 6 questions the FBI either has or has not answered”

  1. DXer said

    At the November 29, 2010 conference, someone in the audience said that the United States had failed to acquire the genetically modified Soviet strain after learning of it in 1998. But then someone else, who seemed equally knowledgeable, said that they had obtained it — through espionage.

    Did the knowledgeable and informed Randall Larsen speak to the question? Who was the speaker who said that the US had successfully achieved it (through other than formal channels).

    On a separate issue, Randy said that Dr. Burans in speaking to DARPA said the morphs were highly stable. So why didn’t the UNM sample have the four morphs?

    RL was head of the WMD Commission and said that the Commission members were highly interested in the 11/29 conference proceedings.

    Magazine article; Arms Control Today, Vol. 31, November 2001

    U.s. Approves Development of Enhanced Anthrax

    In mid-October, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved a Defense Intelligence Agency project to develop a genetically modified, more potent form of anthrax to see if it could defeat the anthrax vaccine currently used by the United States.

    The approval followed consultations that considered the project’s legality under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and U.S. law, a point of concern among some analysts. (See ACT, October 2001.) The convention outlaws development and possession of biological agents for offensive purposes but permits defensive activity. The Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 implements the convention in the United States. According to a U.S. official, hte consultation concluded that there are “no legal roadblocks” to undertaking the project.

    The United States began trying to acquire the modified anthrax strain in 1998, after it learned of a reported Russian effort to develop the strain. However, the United States failed to obtain a sample of the anthrax from Moscow, and early this year the Defense Intelligence Agency began exploring the feasibiltity of developing the strain itself.

    Whether a contract to produce the vaccine has been signed remains unclear, but according to a Defense Intelligence Agency official, the Battelle Memorial Institute “most likely” would be the contractor to develop the anthrax.

    Meanwhile, a U.S. request to Russia for a sample of the strain is still pending before the Russian Export Control Commission. According to the U.S. offical, Russia has been more cooperative on this issue since September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and may approve the U.S. request “very shortly.” If obtained, the sample could render the U.S. project moot, the official said.

  2. DXer said

    In 2003, should Patricia Fellows and Kimothy Smith and other authors published the research involving inserting additional x 101 and x 102 plasmids? Wasn’t it noted at the time by their co-author Pamala Coker to also lead to a more effective bioweapon? (They used virulent Ames). The former Zawahiri associate thanked Patricia for providing technical assistance and thanked Kimothy and Pamala for providing the BL-3 lab at LSU.

    “March 27, 2003
    The New York Times
    Key to Strains of Anthrax Is Discovered

    This is not the first time the question has arisen and won’t be the last.

    After Anthrax.
    by Wendy Orent
    Magazine article by Wendy Orent; The American Prospect, Vol. 11, May 8, 2000

    In 1997 the publication of an article in the international journal Vaccine by two Obolensk scientists, Andrei Pomerantsev and Nikolai Staritsin, produced a violent reaction both within and outside Russia. The article describes the successful transfer of genes from Bacillus cereus, an organism that does not normally cause human infection, into anthrax. These genes cause hemolysis, or the breaking of red blood cells. Introduced into anthrax, they cause a modified disease for which the present U.S. vaccine probably will not produce immunity. Domaradskij, who was Pomerantsev’s mentor, insists that no good interpretation can be put on this experiment.

    “He’s not their golden boy. I believe they punished him, not for doing the research, but for publishing it,” says a knowledgeable American scientist.
    The matter of Pomerantsev–whose story, like Zhdanov’s, is a multifaceted prism–does not end there. One administration official speculates that Pomerantsev might have wanted to publish to “be helpful, to draw our attention to our vulnerabilities. He has his quirks,” the official continues, “but I think favorably of him. This was evil work that was done for the military, but now he’s collaborating with us on our anthrax project.”

    But another American scientist who met Pomerantsev and Staritsin at a conference last August in Taos, New Mexico, mentions that their latest research abstract takes their earlier genetic engineering research a step further. They can now integrate genetic changes right into anthrax DNA. Why do they publish this research? The scientist asked Staritsin this straight out and could not get an answer.

    Domaradskij, who notes that “Pomerantsev was the best of my associates at Obolensk,” states that these are the same techniques he and Pomerantsev once used to engineer antibiotic-resistant tularemia, or “rabbit fever,” a frequently fatal infection. “Pomerantsev is between hammer and anvil–the hammer is Urakov and his secret service, and the anvil is the necessity to show that at Obolensk the disarmament is being carried out. One way or another, I believe that Pomerantsev and Staritsin do not have the right to speak the truth.”

    Still, American scientists plan to work with Pomerantsev and Staritsin on the DNA fingerprinting of anthrax strains. “This work has value for understanding an outbreak and also for studying the evolutionary aspects of anthrax and where it came from,” says an American collaborating on the project. “If I thought that this research had a dual use, I wouldn’t work with them.”

  3. Click to access Released-02-458Warrant.pdf

    Above link gives some answers to why the FBI were “interested” in Hatfill.

  4. Anonymous Scientist said

    Ed Lake writes:
    “The “investigation” of Dr. Hatfill had NOTHING to do with the anthrax case! ”

    He continues to post his propaganda – most of which is fabricated out of whole cloth.

    He conveniently ignores the FACT that FBI insiders were leaking to the media they were CONVINCED Hatfill was responsible
    (CBS) Publicly, not much at all has happened in the FBI’s anthrax investigation since the search last winter of a small pond in upper Maryland. Divers went to the bottom but came up empty handed. Privately, however, agents say it would only have been icing on the cake because they believe they already have their man, even if they never get his indictment, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.

    Bio-weapons researcher Dr. Steven Hatfill, sources confirm, remains the FBI’s number one suspect in the attacks, even though round-the-clock surveillance and extensive searches have failed to develop more than what sources describe as a “highly circumstantial” case.

    “I am not the anthrax killer,” said Hatfill, denying the accusations.

    And now one possible outcome, sources suggest, is that the government might take the unusual step of bringing charges against Hatfill unrelated to the anthrax attacks at all, if they become convinced that’s the only way to prevent future incidents.

  5. Lew Weinstein said

    DXer quoted Ben Furman …

    “Is it any wonder that the former FBI Counterterrorism Chief Ben Furman wrote me telling me that Amerithrax was a mess but that he still thought it best that most information be kept from the public?”

    I couldn’t disagree more. People who want to keep these matters secret have something to hide, either about the attacks or about the FBI’s failed investigation. This was a major event in America’s history; five people died, more were infected, the country was thrown into panic. We must know the facts. People, including the FBI, must be held accountable.


    • DXer said


      I loved your novel — found it very exciting. I recommend it to everyone. I also liked Faithful Spy by a NYT journalist but have forgotten the details.

      There was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and then Lew Weinstein’s Case Closed.

  6. DXer said

    The work on the 4 morphs was done by Kimothy Smith who worked with Paul Keim. Dr. Keim and Dr. Fraser-Liggett have said that the genetics only narrows things to a stream of isolates, and not to Ivins as such. Presentations were made in February 2009 at Baltimore on the subject and I refer you to those detailed presentations and the forthcoming EID articles.

    The October 2001 subpoenas to LSU and University of Michigan were directed to the research done for which Kimothy Smith was thanked by the former Zawahiri associate for providing the space for the DARPA research for which Bruce Ivins supplied the virulent Ames from flask 1029. That research was funded by DARPA and involved the lyophilizer (Speed Vac) Dr. Ivins had signed out.

    Did LSU or University of Michigan provide the FBI with a copy of the virulent Ames provided by Bruce Ivins? Was Kimothy Smith able to exclude himself and his close friends as having allowed access at LSU? Or was a sample just not provided the FBI.

    “B. anthracis spores, Ames and Vollum 1B strains, were supplied by Bruce Ivins (US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases [USAMRIID], Fort Detrick, Frederick, MD) and were prepared as described elsewhere. Four other strains of B. anthracis were provided by Martin Hugh-Jones (Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.”

    In the acknowledgements section, the University of Michigan authors thank:

    Shaun B. Jones, Jane Alexander, and Lawrence DuBois (Defense Science Office, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) for their support.

    Bruce Ivins, Patricia Fellows, Mara Linscott, Arthur Friedlander, and the staff of USAMRIID for their technical support and helpful suggestions in the performance of the initial anthrax studies. [Pat and Mara were mentioned in the police report relating to questions Mrs. Ivins was asked].

    Martin-Hugh-Jones, Kimothy Smith, and Pamela Coker for supplying the characterized B. anthracis strains and the space at Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge).

    • DXer said

      “March 27, 2003
      The New York Times
      Key to Strains of Anthrax Is Discovered


      Scientists have discovered why different strains of the bacterium that causes anthrax differ so much in virulence, a finding that in theory could produce more effective vaccines and better tools for distinguishing and tracking the lethal germ.

      But the finding could also aid the creation of designer varieties of anthrax that are potentially deadlier to humans. Because of that potential danger, a debate occurred over whether the discovery should be kept secret, scientists said. In the end, it was decided that the benefits of publication outweighed the risks.

      The discovery was made by six scientists at Louisiana State University, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the nation’s top center for studying germ defenses. It is published in the current Journal of Clinical Microbiology.

      The lead author, Dr. Pamala R. Coker, formerly at L.S.U. and now at the Livermore laboratory in California, spearheaded the research for her Ph.D. dissertation. The Livermore laboratory once pioneered nuclear arms but increasingly studies biology and germ defenses.

      The team’s finding centers on the anthrax genome, which consists of a single large chromosome and two small circles of DNA, known as plasmids, that carry extra genes. The scientists found that, contrary to common belief, each anthrax bacterium carries not just one set of plasmids but up to 243 copies of the first and up to 32 copies of the second, which is known as pX02. The more copies of this plasmid in a bacterial strain, the more it is capable of causing disease, the scientists said.

      The research was conducted in guinea pigs. The scientists found, for example, that an anthrax strain from Mozambique that possessed just one pX02 plasmid killed 25 percent of the test animals. But a strain from Australia with 32 copies of the plasmid left all the guinea pigs dead.


      It could also aid investigations of germ attacks. Dr. Coker of the Livermore laboratory said the finding could help forensic scientists track down the country and laboratory from which the weapon arose. That, she said, was possible because the plasmid technique acted as a kind of microscope to reveal finer genetic distinctions among the 89 known varieties of anthrax. A match between the attack germ and a library of detailed fingerprints could help locate the perpetrator.

      Dr. Coker conceded that the research in theory could also help a genetic engineer make a more deadly form of anthrax by increasing the number of pX02 plasmids.


      In addition to Dr. Coker of Livermore and Dr. Hugh-Jones of L.S.U., the paper’s authors are Dr. Kimothy L. Smith of the Livermore laboratory, Patricia F. Fellows of the Army research institute, and Dr. Galena Rybachuck and Dr. Konstantin G. Kousoulas of L.S.U.”

      Patricia F. Fellows was Bruce Ivins’ friend and colleague to whom he wrote the dramatic email described by FoxNews in which Dr. Ivins announced someone’s assessment that the anthrax was closest to the product made by a fellow scientist. As I recall it, the subject of the email read something like “HOT NEWS!”

      Dr. Pamala Coker first published the work by Patricia Fellows regarding increasing the virulence of Ames anthrax in Chapter 3 of her PhD thesis. She dedicated her thesis to Dr. Kimothy Smith (the FBI genetics consultant who worked with Dr. Keim), to whom she expressed great love and admiration. (She is a cat doctor now in LA; I have a call and email into her).

      So what we have here is Bruce Ivins supplying virulent Ames to a former Zawahiri associate for DARPA research.

      Then the FBI hired as its genetics consultant the guy who was very close to the woman who published that research relating to how to make a more effective bioweapon — the guy who had provided the former Zawahiri associate BL-3 lab space to do the anthrax research with virulent Ames supplied by Bruce Ivins.

      Then Dr. Kimothy Smith and his colleagues arrived at the 4 morphs that are being relied upon to pin the crime on Bruce Ivins.

      I don’t doubt the good faith, expertise and due diligence of any of the folks I’ve named.

      I am just interested in finding out whether a copy of the sample used in that DARPA research was provided the FBI and how many morphs did it have.

      None of them will say.

      There might as well be full disclosure now because it all is going to come out in litigation under FOIA. It is human nature to give bonus points for good faith when people are responsive to these sorts of questions which are fairly raised.

      Personally, I think the scientists doing the work for the FBI are doing great work.

      It’s the common sense of the investigators who seem unschooled and inexperienced in intelligence analysis that I question.

      • DXer said

        Hyperlinked Sources:

        Bacillus anthracis Virulence in Guinea Pigs Vaccinated with Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed Is Linked to Plasmid Quantities and Clonality Pamala R. Coker,1,2* Kimothy L. Smith,2 Patricia F. Fellows,3 Galena Rybachuck,4 Konstantin G. Kousoulas,4 and Martin E. Hugh-Jones1

        Coker PhD thesis publishing Patricia F. Fellows USAMRIID data in Chapter 3

        Additional Sources Describing Background Of DARPA-funded research for which FBI genetics consultant Kimothy Smith had provided space at LSU’s BL-3 Special Pathogens laboratory, which was subject to subpoenas left, right and center beginning in October 2001 through February 2002:

        Press Release, “Novavax Microbicides Undergoing Testing at University of Michigan Against Biological Warfare Agents; Novavax Technology Being Supplied to U.S. Military Program At University of Michigan as Possible Defense Against Germ Warfare,” March 18, 1998

        Hamouda et al., “Microbiocidal effects of liposome-like microemulsions on pathogenic Gram negative bacteria.” In: American Society for Microbiology, 98th General Meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., 1998; Abstract A-52. 47 (11 pages).

        presentation by Michael Hayes at Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) on September 26, 1998 summarizing how biocidal agent killed the virulent anthrax strains in petri dish

        PR Newswire, “Anti-Microbial Agent Shown to Destroy Anthrax, Data Presented at ICAAC: ‘New Anti-Microbial Agent Destroys Anthrax, But Doesn’t Hurt Animals Or the Environment,’ Say University of Michigan Scientists,” September 26, 1998

        “New Anti-Microbial Agent Destroys Anthrax, Kills Flu Virus,” The University [of ] Record, September 30, 1998

        University of Michigan Medical school, Medicine at Michigan, (Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1999 (describing research at Dugway in Utah)

        “Novavax Receives Extension On Subcontract With the University of Michigan,” Business Wire, August 2, 1999

        “Nano Is Now” at Michigan — and James Baker Is Leading The Way,” Medicine at Michigan, Summer 2000

        NanoBio, “Status Report: Bio-Attack Defense,” October 29, 2001

        “Statement of James R. , Jr., MD Ruth Dow Doan Professor of Medicine and Director of Biologic Nanotechnology, Chief, Division of Allergy & Immunology, University of Michigan, “Anthrax Decontamination,” November 8, 2001 FDCH Congressional Testimony (House Science)

        T. Hamouda and J.R. Baker, Jr., “Antimicrobial mechanism of action of surfactant lipid preparations in enteric Gram-negative bacilli,” Journal of Applied Microbiology, Volume 89, Issue 3, Pages 397-403, Dec 25, 2001

        “Clear and present? Haddad case suspiciously secret,” Michigan Daily, January 9, 2002

        “Global Relief Foundation tied to 1998 terrorist,” Michigan Daily, May 9, 2002

        “Statement of James Baker Jr. Professor Center for Biological Nanotechnology,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Health, FDCH Congressional Testimony, March 27, 2003 (“Project Bioshield”)

        “Threats and Responses: A Michigan Case; U.S. Deports Charity Leader In Visa Dispute,” New York Times, July 16, 2003

        “Process Innovators: NanoBio Corp.,”, October 11, 2007

        Statement of Homam Albaroudi, Member, Muslim Community Association Of , July 30, 2003 in Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor et al. v. John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller: The First Challenge to The USA PATRIOT Act

        “Founder of charity enters guilty plea,” Ann Arbor News, September 11, 2003

        “Islamic charity leader receives sentencing,” Ann Arbor News, November 14, 2003

        “IANA’s link to case is unclear,” Ann Arbor News, April 16, 2004

      • DXer said

        Did the scientist Pamala who wrote this about Kimothy

        “To Kimothy, my mentor, my friend, my love.
        Two wholes
        when they coincide…
        That is
        that is

        provide a sample of the virulent Ames supplied by Bruce Ivins that was used in her LSU lab?

        … the anthrax that Bruce Ivins supplied the former Zawahiri associate who used Pamala’s BL-3 lab space at LSU?

        The lab which records (produced in response to a subpoena) show that between January 2, 2000 and mid-October 2001 there had been only 3 visitors (in addition to Dr. Hugh-Jones and Coker)?

        If Pamala did, did her soul mate FBI genetics consultant Kimothy, determine it had 4 morphs?

        If it did, did Kimothy tell Pamala (who he in 2003 recruited to work with him at Lawrence Livermore)?

        Is it any wonder that the former FBI Counterterrorism Chief Ben Furman wrote me telling me that Amerithrax was a mess but that he still thought it best that most information be kept from the public?

      • DXer said⊂=Weapons%20inspections
        By Debora MacKenzie

        Kimothy Smith is a molecular epidemiologist whose research on genetic variation in anthrax unexpectedly bought him extra work after last year ‘s US anthrax attacks. He was a co-author of a key paper ( Science, vol 296, p 2028) which compared the detailed DNA sequence of the anthrax used in the attacks to several unidentified, virulent “Ames” strains. He helped uncover the only site at which these strains differed a discovery that may yet help nail the perpetrator

        It seems more and more likely that the UN weapons inspectors will get the chance to find out whether Iraq is hiding biological weapons. Are you packed and ready to go?

        I was placed on the roster of potential bioweapons inspectors last year, so yes, I have a bag packed. The majority of inspectors I know who work for UNMOVIC (the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) are what I guess you ‘d call ordinary scientists, with additional training and experience.

        Like many of the rest of the inspectors, this will be your first time doing anything like this. What can a bunch of biologists do to uncover Saddam ‘s bioweapons if he doesn ‘t want you to find them?

        Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything. It works like this Iraq declares its manufacturing or imports that have a legitimate use, but could also be used for illicit weapons. Then the inspectors put that declaration together with everything else they know, and visit facilities, to see if things add up. If things don ‘t, they follow up the discrepancies. This thorough, systematic and careful investigation something that good scientists do very well is likely to get the job done.

        Is someone going to use serious bioweapons in the next decade?

        I sincerely hope not, but I fear that they will. I ‘m not willing to bet that they won ‘t. But I think we are as ready as the current state of technology and knowledge allows, and getting better prepared every day.

        You didn ‘t always make your living studying deadly bioweapons, did you?

        No, I started as a veterinarian in Oklahoma, where I grew up. I also farmed 1000 acres of wheat and cotton, and had a couple of hundred head of cattle. But after a while, I felt like my brain was drying up. While veterinary practice and farming have their challenges, there just aren ‘t too many intellectual challenges in a dust-bowl Oklahoma town. But there ‘s family. Too much of it. I am related to nearly everyone in that three-county area.

        So you fled to a PhD course at Louisiana State in Baton Rouge but not to study anthrax?

        Nope, red cockaded woodpeckers. They ‘re very endangered, with only a few thousand left, and the biologists trying to reintroduce them into new areas weren ‘t having much luck. I tried to discover why, and also what pathogens might be lurking to ruin the translocation. But the folks doing the work didn ‘t really want to know about pathogens, and the politics of trying to work with an endangered species were impossible I mean, it took me a whole year to get my hands on an actual bird. Moving into anthrax research allowed me to continue working on the epidemiology of infectious disease but with more funds.

        And travel

        Yeah. One day Martin Hugh-Jones, one of the professors, announced he was looking for a graduate student to collect anthrax in Kruger National Park in South Africa. And I said, where do I sign?

        Why Kruger?

        Kruger Park is ideal for studying anthrax in its natural state, where it is part of the ecology. It ‘s entirely likely that anthrax evolved in that region of southern Africa, based on the genetic analyses we ‘ve performed, because it ‘s where the most genetic diversity is, including somevariants found nowhere else we know of. And there probably isn ‘t another place on Earth where such good records of outbreaks have been kept for so long and over so large an area, with natural hosts for anthrax, and regular epidemics. The best thing about it was being exposed to a different culture, set in such beautiful landscapes, and getting to see wildlife in the natural setting. On the other hand, one day I was walking some way in front of Valarius De Vos, the top South African anthrax expert, looking for the places you find anthrax spores hyena dung is good. Suddenly he called out “Kimothy, be very still.” I looked up and there were three bull elephants not ten metres from me. They checked me out, then slowly moved away. But it was scary.

        What is so interesting about anthrax?

        One of the coolest things about anthrax unfortunately, it ‘s a bit Hannibal Lecter-ish is that it ‘s one of the very few organisms that needs to kill its host to reproduce. The victim has to die and bleed for the bacteria to escape back into the soil. In fact, if you cover an elephant that died of anthrax with thorn bushes to keep the vultures off, it doesn ‘t bleed and the anthrax doesn ‘t form as many spores in the soil. It ‘s a risky lifestyle for a pathogen, feast or famine. But anthrax has solved the problem by lying dormant for decades, waiting for a new victim. Human beings have a long history with anthrax yet we still don ‘t have a good handle on everything there is to know about it. The events of the past year underscored that.

        When the first victim of the anthrax mailings died in Florida, the lab where you were working got samples of the bacteria almost immediately.

        We had a very powerful technique for reliably distinguishing between different genetic variantsof anthrax. We were using it to study anthrax biodiversity round the world, and how anthrax evolved. But a few of us also realised how it might also be used forensically, to trace the source of a pathogen. We use variable number tandem repeats (VNTRs) which are small, repetitive DNA sequences. Some mutate slowly and some mutate very quickly, faster than the random single nucleotide changes, or SNPs, often used to track genetic variation. The more they differ between samples, the longer the bacteria have been apart. The rapidly changing VNTRs are ideal for differentiating very closely related isolates, for example in forensic investigations, because they can differ in bacteria that have been separated for relatively few generations.

        What did you find?

        We found a very fast-mutating string of adenines that could distinguish between several possible sources of the anthrax used in the attacks. I can ‘t say more than that, because I ‘m under a non-disclosure agreement with the FBI.

        What else can you use these VNTRs for?

        The more slowly changing VNTRs can trace phylogenetic relationships within the species, sometimes within the whole genus, across a region or even worldwide. VNTRs have long been used to type eukaryotic species, such as humans as we saw in the O.J. Simpson trial. They were also used to distinguish HIV samples from different patients in the mid-1990s but, other than that, using them on microorganisms is fairly new, possibly because microbial and eukaryotic geneticists rarely cross paths. Maybe that will change now. But VNTRs can help unravel unanswered questions in the epidemiology and ecology of pathogens. For example, folks have speculated that cattle trails, like the Old Chisholm Trail, helped disperse anthrax across the US. And we are using VNTRs to try to find genetic evidence for that.

        When you started studying anthrax, did you realise there was so much interest in it as a biological weapon?

        Yes and no. I was aware of its history during the Second World War, and that the Soviets and the US had both done research on it. I became aware of the evidence that Iraq had investigated its use later, during my time as a graduate student in Louisiana. But the depth and breadth of its potential as a biological weapon in warfare and terrorism no. But it wasn ‘t long before I learned that some of the people you meet at anthrax conferences aren ‘t really scientists. Once I was having a drink with two South African ladies at a scientific conference on anthrax there, when this guy literally popped up out of the bushes, tipped over the wine bottle, and put an end to our conversation. I don ‘t want to say much more about it, but it wasn ‘t an accident.

        What was it like working on the anthrax case in the glare of publicity?

        Distracting. Very distracting. Within a week we had TV crews parked outside the building. At one point we were about to have a lab meeting. The office door was open a crack, and the lens of a television camera actually came poking through the door. The head of the lab slammed the door, and we got the building security to escort them out.

        If you had to do it over, what would you do differently? And what would you tell a scientist in a similar spot?

        I ‘d get more sleep and make my team get more sleep too. And I ‘d advise anyone facing this to make friends with your institution ‘s public information person. They can help protect you.

        How has anthrax and pathogen research changed since 11 September and the anthrax attacks?

        The cost of doing business with the “select agent” pathogens that are potential bioweapons has increased. There is more paperwork and tighter security. The regulations are changing, too, such as who can work with them. I understand the necessity for this, but it takes time away from the science and increases the financial burden. And the funding agencies are having a lot of trouble distributing all this new money. There are a lot of proposals to sift through, and they just can ‘t do it fast enough. The upside is that there is much more funding for research on infectious diseases, and for the public health system. The pay-off for society is a better knowledge base and early warning system for infectious diseases, including those that could be agents of terror.

        Is your new lab, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, already benefiting from the increased funding?

        Yes, we ‘re planning lots of new work. One particularly exciting area is the sequencing of human and agricultural viral pathogens for which there is little or no sequence information available. I ‘d rather not say which ones right now.

        There ‘s some controversy about scientists publishing the genetic sequences of dangerous viruses, especially since one lab managed to reconstruct an infectious polio virus from scratch just by knowing its genetic sequence.

        Until we ‘re told differently, we plan to publish our results in full. Making our results available to other researchers means scientists can make advances to safeguard against bioterrorism. We simply have to practise responsible science. What a thing to say! But good scientists are also human beings, they can make good value judgments. Scientists are not amoral just because they follow the scientific method. They can decide what science is right to do, and what science may not be.

        What research do we need to do to guard against future attacks?

        Everything from pathogen ecology, life history, virulence, pathogenesis and host-pathogen interactions, to new therapies and prophylaxis and detection technologies. One thing we especially need is global maps of the background genetic variation in pathogens. It feeds basic science as well as forensic investigation. For that, we need good fieldwork and international collaboration. And we could learn a lot from people ‘s existing collections if they haven ‘t already destroyed them. Some people are doing that because they don ‘t want the hassle of having these agents around with all the recent attention they ‘ve been getting.

        As you wait to find out about Iraq, military personnel are about to get the controversial anthrax vaccine. Have you had it?

        Yes. I ‘ve been vaccinated for a number of years now. If you ‘re really facing exposure to anthrax, then the risk of any side effects has to be preferable to the disease. The only real side effect that I ‘ve suffered so far was an urge to grow my hair long and pierce my ear.

        From New Scientist Magazine 26 October 02

    • DXer said

      “Kimothy, be very still”

      On the other hand, one day I was walking some way in front of Valarius De Vos, the top South African anthrax expert, looking for the places you find anthrax spores hyena dung is good. Suddenly he called out “Kimothy, be very still.” I looked up and there were three bull elephants not ten metres from me. They checked me out, then slowly moved away. But it was scary.”

      James Baker, founder of Ann Arbor’s NanoBio’s likes to quote other advice pertinent to the jungle:

      “When there are no lions and tigers in the jungle, the monkeys rule.”

      It is his “favorite quote.”

      Dr. Baker up to a point had been very patient with me in providing written answers to my emailed questions.

      James R. Baker Jr., co-founder of nanotechnology companies NanoBio Corp. and Avidimer Therapeutics

      NanoBio chief sees lack of entrepreneurial execs

      See also

      • DXer said

        Case title: USA v. Al-Timimi

        05/15/2009 292 Notification Regarding Security Clearance by USA as to Ali Al-Timimi (jlan)

        02/27/2009 290 ORDER granting 289 Motion to Withdraw as Attorney. Katherine Joanne Seikaly withdrawn from case as to Ali Al-Timimi (1). Signed by District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema on 2/27/2009. (rban, )

        02/27/2009 289 MOTION for Withdrawal of Appearance of Katherine J. Seikaly as Co-Counsel for Dr. Al-Timimi by Ali Al-Timimi. (rban, )

        02/19/2009 288 For the reasons stated in an under seal hearing, the Government’s Motion for Treatment of Certain Defense Filings as Classified 282 is deemed resolved; and, it is hereby ORDERED that the transcript of the closed portion of the February 19, 2009 hearing will remain classified and under seal pending classification review. The government is directed to carefully review the transcript and make only those redactions necessary to protect classified information.Signed by District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema on 02/19/08. (yguy)

        02/19/2009 Minute Entry for proceedings held before District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema:CLOSED HEARING held on 2/19/2009. US appeared through Gordon Kromberg.Deft appeared w/counsel Johnathan Turley. Pltf motion was argued in open court and deemed resolved. (Order to follow). (Court Reporter Thomson.) (yguy)

        02/13/2009 287 UNDER SEAL – Defendant Dr. Ali Al-Timimi’s MOTION to Compel Discovery (filed w/Court Security Officer) (yguy) (Entered: 02/18/2009)

        02/12/2009 286 UNDER SEAL Defendant Dr. Ali Al-Timimi’s Reply To Government Response To The Motion For Disclosure Of Evidence Derived From (filed w/Court Security Officer) (yguy)

        01/28/2009 285 ORDER granting 284 Motion to Continue hearing from 1/30/09 to 2/19/09 @ 11:00 a.m. and that the court will hold a closed hearing because classified information may be discussed in resolving the pending motions as to Ali Al-Timimi (1). Signed by District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema on 1/28/09. (krob)

        01/28/2009 Reset Deadlines re Motion as to Ali Al-Timimi 277 UNDER SEAL MOTION. Motion Hearing set for 2/19/2009 at 11:00 AM before District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema. (krob )

        01/27/2009 284 Consent Motion for a Continuance of the January 30, 2009 hearing by Ali Al-Timimi. (jlan)

        01/15/2009 283 UNDER SEAL – Defendant Dr. Ali Al-Timimi’s Memorandum Of Points In Response To Government’s Motion For The Treatment Of Certain Defense Filings As Classified (filed w/Court Security Officer) (yguy)

        01/13/2009 282 UNDER SEAL Government’s Motion for Treatment of Certain Defense Filings as Classified, filed by USA as to Ali Al-Timimi (original w/ Court Security). (tbul, )

  7. Anonymous scientist said

    It’s good to see you totally dismantling the persistent nonsense posted by Ed Lake. If people actually believe what he wrote he would be a public menace. Indeed, the very fact that the FBI and scientists at Sandia national labs (especially Dr Joesph Michael) correspond with him (or so he claims) virtually confirms that they are undertaking a cover-up, and need to resort to corresponding with a scientifically illiterate retiree from Racine, WI to help propagate their fairytales publicly.

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