Russian researchers have created a new form of anthrax that may be able to elude the vaccine U.S. troops will soon get to protect them against the deadly germ warfare agent, American scientists have learned.
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 been a speculation that somebody could always make designer bugs," said Col. Gerald Parker, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md.
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. The disease normally afflicts animals like cattle and sheep, but can cause severe illness and death in humans who inhale large doses.
Iraq'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 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Parker said Army scientists had no knowledge that Iraq also had developed this new organism - the first known genetically engineered potential biological warfare threat.
The new altered form of anthrax was developed at the State Research Centre for Applied Microbiology in Obolensk, Russia. The lead Russian researcher shared preliminary information about the work last fall when he was in the United States collaborating with American scientists on a different project. The research was formally published in December 1997 in the British scientific journal Vaccine.
"The evidence that they presented suggested that it could be resistant to our vaccine," said Col. Arthur Friedlander, chief of the bacteriology division at the institute. "We need to get hold of this strain to test it against our vaccine. 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."