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Wednesday, December 19, 2001

UNM Anthrax May Be Twin To Strain in Attacks

By Jackie Jadrnak
Journal Staff Writer
    Anthrax used in research at the University of New Mexico likely is an identical twin to the type that infected 18 people, according to a UNM spokesman.
    The university expects its anthrax to be tested soon to see whether its genetic fingerprint matches that of mailed spores that ultimately resulted in five deaths this fall, said Sam Giammo.
    "We would be very surprised if it didn't match perfectly," Giammo said.
    UNM's anthrax comes from the same batch sent out by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease to five other laboratories. The samples from those laboratories already tested identical to spores in letters sent to political and media figures, according to the Washington Post.
    The U.S. Army lab is in Fort Detrick, Md.
    UNM doesn't use anthrax in the finely milled form that made the germs in the bioterrorism mailings more deadly, Giammo added, although the anthrax could be ground down to the tiny size that helps anthrax spores seep through small openings, float for a longer length of time in the air, and be inhaled more easily.
    The U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground one of the five sites confirmed this month that it has used the dry, powdery form in its research to test detection equipment and decontamination methods, according to news reports.
    Many laboratories use the Ames form of anthrax that was in the letters, but that form has several subtypes that can be identified through genetics. The FBI has been focusing on government research programs as a possible source of the anthrax used in the attacks, according to the Post story.
    But The Associated Press quoted an Army spokesman as saying such matches don't help discover the source of the bioterrorists' anthrax. The Army lab got its supply in 1980 from a U.S. Agriculture Department lab in Ames, Iowa, which might have supplied a number of other laboratories, he said.
    UNM hasn't received a formal request to test an anthrax sample as part of the bioterrorism investigation, but it knows it will be asked to supply one, Giammo said. It is awaiting notice on where to send it, he added.
    Anthrax used at UNM is rated a Biosafety Level 2 substance, according to Giammo. Substances and research techniques are rated at four levels, with 1 being the least dangerous and 4 the most dangerous. UNM has two Level 3 labs now and is developing plans for a Level 4 lab.
    UNM is using the anthrax in a project that focuses on early detection of and vaccination against biowarfare agents. The project started earlier this year with $5.1 million in funding over three years from the federal Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia.