Thursday, January 3, 2002

University President Defends Anthrax Shipment

By Jennifer McKee
Journal Staff Writer

Northern Arizona University was only responding to Los Alamos National Laboratory requests when scientists at the Flagstaff school sent a shipment of virulent anthrax to LANL in October, according to a letter from the president of the university.

John D. Haeger said Los Alamos scientists requested the Bacillus anthracis from Arizona scientists.

Haeger sent the letter about the anthrax Wednesday to Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass, who had previously questioned the legality of the shipment.

Haeger's letter said the university followed all rules in packing and shipping the bacteria and even called Los Alamos staff before shipping the package to make sure the shipment was OK.

His letter also said Los Alamos staff sent forms to NAU indicating LANL was certified to accept the shipment.

"We have violated no laws or regulations in our activities," Haeger's letter reads, adding that the university has never shipped B. anthracis to any non-authorized person or institution.

According to representatives of the Los Alamos lab, LANL researchers only wanted the bacteria's DNA and were so concerned by the virulent shipment, they instituted a 30-day internal review to make sure other research labs understand LANL's anti-virulent policy.
Los Alamos lab representatives have said — in statements not disputed by NAU — that LANL didn't request a batch of Ames spores, only a small amount of the bacteria's DNA.

That's what Northern Arizona University scientists intended to ship, too, but they tested the DNA before shipping it just to make sure the sample was not tainted with any viable cells.
The test came back positive for a small amount of spores, but NAU sent the shipment anyway, after checking with the Los Alamos lab.

Scientists at both Los Alamos and the Arizona university are working on the FBI investigation into anthrax in the U.S. mail that killed some people this fall. The shipment was made in connection with that investigation.

The shipment in question — which delivered approximately 20 spores of the so-called Ames strain of B. anthracis in a tainted batch of the bacteria's DNA — raised flags when news of it became public because Los Alamos lab has maintained a policy of not working with virulent anthrax.

The shipment was also the first time the lab disclosed that it is registered to receive the virulent Ames strain. Previously, lab representatives had said that LANL only worked with non-disease-causing forms of B. anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax disease.

The shipping papers accompanying the anthrax from Arizona differed from those Los Alamos lab scientists apparently signed when requesting the organism. Under regulations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those shipping papers must match.

The incident caught the eye of Rep. Markey, the congressman who helped sponsor the law outlining shipping rules for certain deadly bugs like B. anthracis that could be used as weapons.

Markey sent letters last month to Northern Arizona University, the Energy Department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asking each agency a variety of questions about the shipment and whether Los Alamos lab was registered with the CDC to receive virulent B. anthracis.

A DOE review of the incident said Los Alamos was not registered to receive virulent B. anthracis, although a lab spokesman said that document was an initial report that did not contain the most up-to-date information and will probably be updated before being released in its final form.

Markey asked all three agencies to respond to his questions by Jan. 2. According to Markey's office, only Northern Arizona University had responded by the end of the business day Wednesday.

Haeger's letter said he could not divulge much detail about the shipment because the university has a non-disclosure agreement with the FBI to not release information about the ongoing anthrax investigation.

Both LANL and Northern Arizona University have said from the beginning that no one was endangered by the shipment.

The laboratory filtered out anything from the shipment large enough to be a viable cell and destroyed it in an autoclave, a common medical sterilizing machine that kills organisms with a combination of heat and pressure.