November 2001

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Vol. I Number 5

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By Sushmit Sen

The dust of September 11 attacks had not even settled and within a few weeks after that another ‘attack’ with bio-chemicals, in the form of anthrax, has hit the U.S. Bacillus anthracis, Latin for the rod-shaped bacteria that causes anthrax disease, stretches as far back as the days of the Bible.


The fifth plague in the book of Genesis that wiped out Egyptian cattle in 1491 BC is thought to have been anthrax. In the early literature of Hindus, Greeks and the Roman Empire, there is a mention of this disease.


In the 17th century, it swept across Europe, killing 60,000 people and countless animals.  It was called "the black bane.”


Philip Brachman, an anthrax specialist at Atlanta's Emory University School of Public Health, said people began to associate the disease with clothing made from wool and animal hides, but understood little about how the infection actually spread.


Not until the advent of the microscope and discovery of bacteria did 19th- century scientists see Bacillus anthracis for what it was: a nasty bug with the disturbing ability to disguise itself for decades depending on the environmental conditions.


It took more than 40 years to clean anthrax off a Scottish island after scientists used it for experiments in 1942. Heat, sunlight, cold and dry air trigger the bacterium to cloak itself in a tasteless, odourless and durable shell -- a spore.


History of Anthrax

1500 BC

Anthrax thought to be responsible for the fifth Egyptian plague.


Anthrax becomes known as the "Black Bane."


Bacterial origin for anthrax discovered, along with the spore stage that allows the persistence of anthrax in the environment. Anthrax is cause of wool sorter disease.


First successful immunization of livestock against anthrax.


First human vaccine developed.


Only human trial of licensed anthrax vaccine in United States.


Licensing of US anthrax vaccine, an inactivated cell-free product.


Release of anthrax spores from a military facility in Sverdlovsk in USSR results in at least 79 cases of anthrax infection and 68 deaths.


Canadian troops dispatched to Iraq are inoculated against anthrax.

(Source: Ronald Brecher, Ph.D., C. Chem., Ms. L. Schutt and Mr. B. Montemayor of Global Tox International Consultants, Inc., based in Guelph, Ontario.)


Almost all of the 18 naturally occurring cases of inhalation anthrax reported in the United States in the 20th century involved animals and industrial accidents.


The last case before the Boca Raton ones, reported in 1978, involved a man in California weaving tapestries with imported, spore-infected goat yarn.


Some of the best information comes from the "biological Chernobyl" that devastated the Soviet Union.


In 1979, a mysterious outbreak of the disease killed at least 68 people in the Russian industrial centre of  Sverdlovsk, where Boris Yeltsin (later on President of Russia) was Communist Party Chief. A bioweapons production plant accidentally spewed anthrax spores from its smokestack that scattered over Sverdlovsk. People fell ill for up to six weeks after the event and 105 people died. The lab was part of network of germ factories in the Soviet Union’s biological weapons programme, which produced hundreds of tons of anthrax.


There are scientifically recorded cases of anthrax and its outbreaks from around the world between July 2000 – July 2001.


In 1987, for example, the American Type Culture Collection, one of the largest, non-profit repositories of biological material in the United States, shipped Iraq seven strains of anthrax. The two countries were on friendlier terms at the time, but less than a decade later Iraq admitted it had a biowarfare program that included turning anthrax into biological weapons


Access to germ and virus stocks at research institutes has since then become more restricted. But David Beck, president of the non-profit biomedical supply repository at the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in New Jersey, said it is still "very easy" for someone to lay their hands on pathogens capable of mass destruction, including anthrax.


"They're in the wild," Beck said, adding that it is easy to find the "culture conditions for any micro-organism. Start culturing the mud around any farm or dude ranch and you'll come up with it. A half-baked microbiologist could do this kind of stuff."


Is it homegrown? Are anti-establishment or white supremacist groups doing this because they feel that they can get away as the focus right now is on Osama bin Laden and his network or on “terrorist” states like Iraq?


And if  the United States ends up linking Iraq with this (they do not a reason to go on to the next step in the war against terrorism) and the homegrown groups get away, will the bio-attacks come back to haunt us in the years ahead?


We have it on the excellent authority of the celebrated scientist, Stephen Hawking, that the brief history of time is going to get briefer. He gives human beings roughly a thousand years before they transmogrify into a giant collection of bacteria floating around like invisible ghosts on Planet Earth. ‘‘In the long term,’’ Hawking had said, ‘‘I am more worried about biology. The danger is that either by accident or design, we create a super virus that destroys us.’’


After a fortnight when a sprinkling of a white substance called Anthrax, which looked as harmless as talcum for babies, had all but sent a thunderbolt of terror through the world, Hawking seems to be dead on, quite literally so. Somebody had said, in the long run we are all dead?


The quicker we recognize that the real terror is fear, the better. There is no monopoly on fear and one doesn’t have to be political to die. Are We Easy Targets for Terrorism?

For More Information on Anthrax:


Little-known lab, India’s germ-buster

After helping Army, DRDE will train civilians to fight bioterrorism Gwalior, India: It’s been around since 1962, long before the local postman knew what bioterrorism was, and when the only thing you got in your mailbox was, well, mail. As the anthrax scare envelops the world, the low-key Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) in Gwalior, the country’s premier laboratory to combat bioterrorism, is gearing up to give civilians a helping hand.


This month, it will conduct a four-day anti-germ warfare training course for senior police officers, doctors and administrators.


Apart from France and The Netherlands, India’s DRDE is only the third laboratory recognised in the training of inspectors for the United Nations sponsored Chemical Weapons Convention. Several of the world’s 250-odd chemical weapon inspectors have been trained at DRDE, including specialists from the US, UK, Russia and Australia. DRDE scientists form the core faculty for this six-week course, and it is this faculty that will train Indian civilians to grapple with bio-terrorism.


DRDE microbiologist A K Batra says, ‘‘It is going to be a challenge training civilians, since DRDE has always worked with military personnel. For the first time, at the request of the Home ministry, it is opening its doors to train state officials for the creation of rapid response teams all over the country.’’


The laboratory is unobtrusively tucked away in Gwalior fort. In its original avatar, it was a natural product centre set up by the Scindia royal family in 1947. The Defence ministry took over this centre in 1962, and it is now one of the main flanks in what the defense forces term nuclear, biological and chemical defense preparedness. The 120-odd boffins here have made biotechnological reagents for the detection of diseases like anthrax and plague. The laboratory has also developed portable kits for the detection of chemical warfare agents like Sarin — the gas that was used in the Tokyo subway attack in 1995 — and fatal poisons like cyanide and VX, as well as developing indigenous versions of personal protective gear like the safety suits that are being used in the US at present.


Many Western observers allege the DRDE actually carries out research and development of bio-weapons. But DRDE director D K Jaiswal maintains that ‘‘the mandate of DRDE is only to develop defensive and protective devices. It has no role to play in offensive systems.’’ The laboratory has also fabricated fluids to decontaminate affected areas and portable radiation dose meters to be used by soldiers in case of a nuclear attack.


‘‘It isn’t easy keeping abreast of the latest trends and thwarting threats of biological and chemical warfare,’’ admits Jaiswal. ‘‘Even for the love of money, no country in the world parts with the sophisticated technologies needed to counter germ warfare. But each country has to develop local answers to this problem. Fortunately, India doesn’t lack in preparedness.’’

(Source: The Indian Express - Pallava Bagla )