Sweeping anti-terror legislation signed into law by President Bush today may help curb the spread of biological weapons to potential terrorists in the United States, but experts fear the availability of materials like anthrax elsewhere in the world pose serious risks.
They say the new laws will do little to prevent potential terrorists from obtaining microbiological materials like anthrax and plague — collected and traded by germ banks for legitimate research purposes — in many other countries around the globe where there aren't such stringent laws.
The bill raises penalties to up to 10 years in prison for the unregulated transfers of deadly biological agents, and criminalizes the possession of such substances by persons not registered with the government.
The New York Post reported this week 1999 court testimony from an Osama bin Laden associate that bin Laden elements purchased anthrax through the mail from a lab in Eastern Europe.
"This is not the sort of thing that you can close off in the United States and allow to happen in other countries," says Jason Pate is a senior research associate with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey.
In more than two-dozen countries, public and private "culture collection" sites or "germ banks" store and distribute various anthrax strains to scientists, researchers and other organizations.
The sites, in countries as diverse as Brazil, Iran and the United Kingdom, sell, trade or give away the anthrax strains to other entities based upon their particular national laws.
The U.S. government for years has considered such sites — which are beneficial for scientific and medical research — a potential source of material for would-be terrorists.
Biological agents, like anthrax, "are readily available in the natural environment and from culture collections in the industrialized and in some developing nations," said a 1999 Defense Department report.
"Many collections of organisms recognized as potential biological agents … exist throughout the world and are made available with minimal monitoring of use or transport."
No New Action?
A major international union of culture collections, the World Federation for Culture Collections (WFCC), last week, announced taking down some information from its Web site listing member germ banks — though that information remains accessible in a less consolidated form elsewhere on the site.
WFCC membership reportedly accounts for less than a third of total microorganism banks worldwide.
Contrary to reports earlier this week, WFCC as an organization has not implemented tighter controls over the transfer of deadly microbes. Rather, it issued a statement Wednesday, citing guidelines and recommendations it made in previous years.
"WFCC is not a legal entity but a scientific federation, it does not have power to punish culture collections of poor quality," says WFCC ex-officio board member Hideaki Sugawara, of the Center for Information Biology and DNA Data Bank of Japan.
"Basically, they're a yellow pages. They have no regulatory authority, or budget control, or oversight, or anything," says board member Raymond Cypess, president of the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), which has the largest collection in the world.
"The responsibility for these collections, many of them, which are national collections, rests with the resident government of the country they reside in," he says.
In the 1980s, Cypess's company, after obtaining approval from the Commerce Department, exported anthrax strains to Iraq. And in 1995, an Ohio State University student, and one-time member of a white supremacist group, obtained vials of plague from ATCC using a letter claiming to represent a phony laboratory.
The 1995 incident in part prompted Congress in 1997 to pass tighter laws restricting transfers of hazardous biological material. Cypess says ATCC hasn't transferred organisms that could be used for bioterrorism since 1997.
International Regimes Needed
Cypess and others say international regimes need to be negotiated between host governments to tighten and coordinate restrictions on deadly microbes, and key technologies for making effective weapons out of them, bringing foreign restrictions on par with U.S. standards.
The 1997 law required that anyone who buys, sells, ships or receives anthrax or 35 other infectious substances must first be approved by and registered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Cypess in 1996 urged the WFCC to pursue similar measures, but he says they didn't act.
Pate of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies says some scholars are pressing for an international agreement to criminalize the possession of potentially deadly biological agents by people not authorized to have them, as the new U.S. anti-terrorism act does.
The agreement could be appended to the Biological Weapons Convention, for which signators are considering possible amendments and will be meeting to discuss them in November.
But he adds, "the problems with the convention is that the states that you are most concerned about are outside the treaty. You're going to expect Iraq to implement legislation? Even if they do it's a joke."
Germ banks aren't the only places anthrax and other deadly microbes can be found, says Barbara Rosenberg, who heads the Federation of American Scientists Chemical and Biological Arms Control Program.
"Anthrax strains are distributed so widely, not just in germ banks, but in laboratories and clinics, animal hospitals, all over the place," she says.
Rosenberg says diagnostic clinics or hospitals that find a strain should be required by law to destroy it. "The fewer places that hold this type of thing, the less likely they are to be leaked out."
Since anthrax can be found in nature, and could be so easily traded acquired or stolen from so many places, she says the U.S. and foreign governments also need to tighten export restrictions on key pieces of equipment for producing and effectively using a bioweapon, such as fermenters and milling machines for production and extra-fine spraying nozzles.
"Trying stop the transfer of pathogen strains is worth doing what you can, but it's never going to be complete, says Rosenberg. "It's much easier to stop the transfer of equipment, bigger stuff, though even that's hard."