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.