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Anthrax Investigation Tracks Vaccinations
The FBI has asked laboratories around the country for records of workers vaccinated against anthrax, as investigators pursue a growing suspicion that whoever mailed the anthrax-laden letters in New Jersey must have taken extraordinary steps to avoid dying in the process.
A federal investigator said the request for names went out to labs that handle anthrax a month ago, and one prominent microbiologist at a large southern university told The Courant that the school's lab has been contacted by the FBI about vaccinated staffers.
The vaccination trail is one more indication that authorities are leaning closer to the theory that the suspect has, or had, access to a relatively sophisticated laboratory that handles anthrax -- possibly a government facility.
Philip Brachman, a former Centers for Disease Control scientist and one of the pioneers of inhalation-anthrax research, said the FBI effort to track down every scientist vaccinated for anthrax is reasonable, especially given the apparent lack of other substantial clues.
But he cautioned that a combination of skill, antibiotics and luck could have saved the mailer from contracting the disease without having had a vaccination.
``I think the FBI has to do just anything to figure out who did this, so it makes inherent sense to look for the vaccinated,'' Brachman said.
So far, federal officials have not said how many trained scientists they expect will eventually show up on a list of people vaccinated against anthrax, or whether such a list is likely to narrow the pool of suspects enough to be a useful investigative tool.
Testifying before a Senate committee in 1999, Kathryn C. Zoon, a scientist from the Food and Drug Administration, said 7,000 people were inoculated during the vaccine's clinical trials, and up to 11,000 more -- mostly agricultural and veterinary workers -- could have received the shots in 1990 before the gulf war. Since then, as many as 500,000 people, almost all military personnel, have been vaccinated.
A successful vaccination requires a series of six shots over many months, followed by an occasional booster shot. The rigorous regimen, coupled with a well-publicized controversy about the vaccine's possible side effects, has prompted some researchers to steer clear of it.
One anthrax researcher, Theresa Koehler of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, said she has taken the vaccine, but knows of others who have chosen not to.
The sole manufacturer of the anthrax vaccine, BioPort of Lansing, Mich., did not return telephone messages requesting comment on the number of people who may have been vaccinated.
Among the several thousand lab workers vaccinated since 1970, when the BioPort vaccine was licensed, are 1,500 employees at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Md., which once housed the government's germ warfare program.
Some experts believe Fort Detrick was likely the original source of the Ames strain of anthrax used to kill five people, including 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren of Oxford. The head of the lab recently acknowledged that federal investigators had asked about current and former employees as part of the anthrax probe.
The Ames strain, first isolated from a diseased cow in Ames, Iowa, decades ago, was used in the now defunct bioweapons program at Fort Detrick. Over the years, the Fort Detrick lab has shared the anthrax strain with about a half-dozen other laboratories, some of which passed it on to others.
Tracking how far the Ames strain went has been difficult, because no record-keeping was required until three years ago, when the CDC issued guidelines on recording transfers of anthrax and other ``select agents'' that could be used as weapons.
``It was like trading baseball cards,'' anthrax expert Martin Hugh-Jones, a professor at Louisiana State University, said in an interview last week. ``If you have some strain that I needed, then I'd send you something I had.''
Hugh-Jones said he got most of his anthrax from the Porton Down lab in Great Britain, one of those that had received the Ames strain directly from Fort Detrick.
Investigators have said the anthrax spores used in the recent attacks were finely milled and treated with an additive that prevented them from clumping together, effectively turning the spores into a lethal gas that could waft through the air once released from the envelopes. Experts say such preparation could have been accomplished only by someone with considerable experience and with access to a sophisticated lab.
FBI agents have visited one such lab twice in the past two months. The head of the lab, on the campus of a large public university in the South, said agents first asked for a list of all people who visited the laboratory in the last 18 months. They also asked for records of any anthrax transactions made by the lab during the same period.
On the second visit, the agents asked for records of anybody who had received an anthrax vaccination, said the microbiologist, who did not want to be identified because the FBI asked him not to talk about the investigation. He said only a few graduate students and a full-time assistant microbiologist have gotten the vaccination recently.
In addition to searching for people who have received the anthrax vaccine, FBI agents have been checking pharmacies up and down the East Coast looking for any large purchases of Cipro, the antibiotic used to combat anthrax, before the letters were mailed.