Lessons From Failed 1993 Biological Attack

ByABC News
October 4, 2001, 12:26 PM

Oct. 5 -- There's been a lot more protection around Paul Keim's lab recently.

"Without giving you specific details, the security has jumped 10 times in the last three weeks," said Keim. "Amazing times in a small town."

What's being protected at the University of Northern Arizona lab in Flagstaff is a genetic database of anthrax strains taken from outbreaks in every region of the world.

This year, Keim used the database to identify what went wrong when the Aum Shinrikyo cult attempted to kill thousands of people by spraying steady mists of anthrax from a rooftop and a vented van in Japan in 1993.

For Keim and other researchers specializing in lethal biological agents, the failed 1993 attempt offers lessons in both hope and caution. The hope comes from the fact that, despite trying for years to launch a biological attack, Aum Shinrikyo never managed to kill or apparently even injure one person using biological agents.

What's discouraging is that officials never caught on to the cult's efforts until two years later when it launched a deadly chemical attack in a Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and injured thousands. Also troubling is that the anthrax strain the cult used, though harmless, is still perfectly viable, even after eight years of storage.

"You can make it and put it on a shelf for years," said Martin Hugh-Jones of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University. "It's a killer and it's very efficient at it."

Cult Botched Many Attempts

Since the 1993 sprayings had no apparent ill effects, Japanese officials only learned about the attack through testimony two years later from former cult members. They said a cult member who was a former graduate student in biology had first acquired a strain of the toxin-producing botulism, and members then sprayed large quantities of it from trucks. The strain was evidently weak or inactive since no deaths or illnesses were reported.

Next, the former biology student acquired a small sample of anthrax through a member who had medical credentials. They cultivated the bacteria in large vats stored in an eight-story concrete building in eastern Tokyo.