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
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
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.