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."