The threat of bioterrorism--which became real this fall--has prompted a flurry of reactions from the U.S. government in a rapidly expanding war against an unknown attacker. Last week, as the number of new anthrax cases in the United States showed signs of tailing off, some of those responses reached deep into the scientific community. Here are some the most recent developments:
Investigations. FBI agents have been working for the past month in a massive probe of U.S. research labs. The objective: to learn whether anthrax spores used in recent attacks could have come from the United States and whether other research organisms might be used as weapons. More than 100 laboratories are registered to handle dangerous microorganisms, and several have been contacted by the FBI. These inquiries, including subpoenas from a Florida grand jury, request lists of employees, a description of the strains at the facility, and other details.
Security. To reduce the risk that another deadly weapon might get into hostile hands, the two facilities designated as official repositories--the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, and VECTOR in Koltsovo, Russia--of the smallpox virus have already increased their security. Neither one offered details, but some measures were obvious: CDC's sprawling campus, for example, is now surrounded by concrete barriers to thwart truck attacks.
New advisers. To help coordinate the response to bioterrorism, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson recruited two decorated warriors back to government service. HHS announced on 1 November that Donald A. Henderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies in Baltimore, Maryland, will head HHS's new Office of Public Health Preparedness. "If you asked who is a giant in the field of bioterrorism as a scientist, who has incredible credibility in the community, there's D. A. Henderson, and then there's no number two," says John Bartlett, chief of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In addition, retired Maj. Gen. Philip Russell, who once ran the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, will join HHS as a special adviser on vaccine development and production.
Vaccine production. The failure of U.S. producers to maintain a viable stockpile of anthrax vaccine for civilians has been an acute embarrassment for the government (Science, 19 October, p. 498). Now, two prominent groups have urged Congress to resolve the impasse by authorizing a new, government-owned, contractor-operated facility dedicated to the manufacture of critical vaccines. A panel chaired by former Virginia Governor James Gilmore told Congress last week that "direct government ownership or sponsorship" of a vaccine lab is "the only reasonable answer." And the governing council of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), chaired by IOM president Kenneth Shine, concluded on 5 November that a "National Vaccine Authority" is "long overdue."
Treaty movement. The anthrax scare could kick-start stalled talks on measures to beef up compliance to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Talks on a BWC protocol broke down last summer, when the U.S. delegation pulled out of negotiations due to concerns that enforcement measures--such as lab inspections--might compromise national security and threaten biotech companies (Science, 20 July, p. 414). Keeping a promise to come up with alternative approaches for a 19 November review conference in Geneva, President George W. Bush last week floated several ideas for strengthening the convention. The most compelling U.S. proposal, experts say, is one to allow nations to extradite for prosecution those who mishandle biotoxins.
With reporting by Jon Cohen, Martin Enserink, Joshua Gewolb, David Malakoff, and Richard Stone.