New Genetically Altered Russian Anthrax May
Elude Vaccine
By Deb Riechmann
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. scientists want a sample of a new form of anthrax developed in Russia that may be able to elude the vaccine shots American troops soon will 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. ``This is coming in as anthrax, but it's got other bullets in it -- different bullets.''
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. 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.
They are more uneasy about the Russian organism, which contains two non-anthrax genes that change the organism and may alter the way it causes disease. If this is the case, it is conceivable that the current American vaccine might not be effective, Friedlander said.
``We need to get hold of this strain to test it against our vaccine,'' Friedlander said. ``We need to understand how this new organism causes disease and we need to test it in animals other than hamsters that the Russians used.''
The American vaccine, widely used by textile mill and livestock workers and veterinarians 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, said Rick Sonntag, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Medical Command at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
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. Eventually, all 2.4 million U.S. military personnel are to be inoculated.
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.
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 he cautioned: ``It's one thing to do this in the lab, but it's a whole different thing to produce it in large quantities to be used as a weapon. That would be very difficult.''
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.
Parker said Army scientists had no knowledge that Iraq also had developed this new organism.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Russia may have sold a fermentation tank to Iraq that could be used for either brewing animal feed or lethal germs for use in war. But Russia's Interfax news agency said the Russian Foreign Ministry denied that Russia concluded any agreements with Iraq or delivered any equipment.
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.
The treaty has no provisions for enforcement, but the U.N. secretary-general has the authority to investigate complaints of violations. The last time the secretary-general investigated an alleged infraction was in the late 1980s when Iran complained that Iraq was using chemical weapons, according to the U.N. Department for Disarmament Affairs in New York.
Matthew Meselson, a professor in Harvard University's Molecular and Cellular Biology Department, is hopeful that the Russian researchers will share the new organism with U.S. scientists.
``If you wanted to keep it secret, you certainly would not have published it,'' said Meselson, a member of a National Academy of Sciences committee working to foster cooperation between American and Russian scientists who work on infectious diseases, including ones that could be used in biological weapons. ``When scientists work together, they share things. It depends, of course, on us being equally forthcoming.''

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