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Scientists Cautious on Ability to Find Anthrax Terrorist; Seek Funding for Sequencing Genomes of Other Pathogens
The strain of anthrax that contaminated the office of Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) five months ago was produced by a sophisticated scientist, who "knew what he was doing," according to David Franz of the Southern Research Institute, one of the speakers at a session on bioterrorism held during the AAAS Annual meeting in Boston last week.
"But forensic work in the lab is not going to be enough," said Franz, Vice President of the Chemical & Biological Defense Division at the Southern Research Institute. "In these cases, a breakthrough has to occur -- someone has to have noticed something..."
Despite Franzís point that science might not alone provide the solution to the anthrax crimes, there seemed to be a lot of hope in the press briefing that drew at least 220 journalists, more than any other news conference held during the Annual Meeting. The purpose was to discuss national research priorities in preparing for incidents of bioterrorism.
Franz was joined by Claire Fraser, President of The Institute for Genomic Research, Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Matthew Meselson of Harvard University.
"Why after five deaths is there this kind of interest?" Franz asked, looking out at the crowd of journalists. "We havenít begun to understand the possibilities of bioterrorism."
Fraser, whose Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland (TIGR) is preparing to publish a sequence for a strain of Bacillus anthracis, declined to discuss it yesterday, saying only that her work would be published in the next few weeks. TIGRís study represents the first such sequencing of an anthrax strain, but the not-for-profit research organization is also working to sequence a strain of the bacterium that killed a photo editor in Boca Raton, Fla.
"Would it be possible to use genetic sequencing techniques to track an anthrax strain back to the laboratory," Fraser said, repeating a reporterís question. "The analysis is still ongoing. Weíve found some differences between the reference strain and the Florida isolate. But we need to collect more data, perhaps looking at the original strain that came from a dead goat found in Texas in 1981. But itís too early to say that this approach can solve this crime."
Fraser called on the federal government to fund sequencing of more genomes -- not only for anthrax, but for other "dangerous pathogens." Only then, she said, could the nation be prepared for the actions of bioterrorists.
Fauci revealed that in tests on existing smallpox vaccines, the government had been able to successfully dilute the vaccine while retaining its effectiveness. This is important because the government has only 15 million doses in stock, although more is being manufactured.
"The study was extremely successful in its take rate," Fauci said. He added that researchers are working to create a third-generation vaccine that would be safe -- even for those whose immune systems are compromised.
"The ultimate goal is to have no-toxic vaccines that you would not hesitate to vaccine anyone with," Fauci said.
-- Coimbra Sirica