Biodefence researcher linked to anthrax attacks

US anthrax expert who committed suicide was under investigation.

A microbiologist and anthrax expert at a US Army biodefence research laboratory has apparently committed suicide while on the verge of indictment in the still-unsolved 2001 anthrax attacks.

Bruce Ivins worked on anthrax vaccines and treatment at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Maryland, for more than 35 years. He died at a local hospital on 29 July. The Los Angeles Times, which broke the story Friday, reported that he had ingested large amounts of prescription Tylenol with codeine.

Spores of Bacillus anthracis shut down postal service in some places for months. Credit: Janice Haney Carr

Federal officials had been preparing an indictment against Ivins in the attacks that transfixed much of the US East Coast in autumn 2001. Spores of anthrax, later linked to a strain used at USAMRIID, were found in letters mailed from New Jersey. Five people died in the attacks in Florida, Washington, Connecticut and New York, and 17 others fell ill.

Contamination issues

USAMRIID develops medical tools to protect soldiers from biological hazards. In 2003 Ivins, along with three other researchers, received the Department of Defense’s highest civilian honor for work on an anthrax vaccine.

But Ivins was also involved in contamination problems at USAMRIID in 2002. While the lab was still analyzing samples from the anthrax letters, Ivins initially failed to inform his supervisors that he suspected anthrax contamination outside the biosafety level 3 facility. A technician complained of sloppy sample handling, and Ivins swabbed the area around her desk and determined that bacteria colonies cultured from the swabs resembled anthrax. He disinfected the desk with bleach but didn’t report the incident. A 2004 USA Today story reported that he told an Army investigator he didn’t want to “cry wolf.”

On Friday, the Department of Justice issued a short statement saying that “significant developments” had been made in the investigation, due in part to unspecified “new and sophisticated scientific tools.”

Sequencing strains

Following the attacks, scientists sequenced several anthrax genomes to match the strain in the letters with one of the dozens of known variants of anthrax. DNA from the mailed spores matched the virulent and often vaccine-resistant Ames strain, which was originally cultured from a Texan cow and described by USAMRIID in 1985. It is not clear what scientific evidence led the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which is working with several labs, to focus on Ivins.

“They were taking a number of different approaches, some of them not even DNA-based,” says Claire Fraser-Liggett, who was involved in the anthrax sequencing after the attacks and continues to work with the Department of Justice as director of the Institute for Genomic Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Fraser-Liggett says she was “very pleased, very relieved” to hear that the FBI may have identified the culprit.

Ivins’ lawyer released a statement Friday, asserting Ivins’ innocence and attributing the scientist’s death to the “relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo.”

Vaccine work

Theresa Koehler, who studies anthrax at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston, collaborated with Ivins years ago and saw him frequently at conferences. “In my interactions with Bruce Ivins, he was a valued colleague and a good scientist,” she says.

Ivins prepared spores and infected laboratory animals with them, in hopes of evaluating the efficacy of new vaccines and treatments. He co-authored a report in the 5 August issue of Vaccine1 that tested whether blood plasma from humans treated with an anthrax vaccine could protect mice from the pathogen.

Last month, the US government agreed to pay more than $5.8 million to bioweapons researcher Steven Hatfill, who had been named early on as a “person of interest” in the case. Hatfill had sued the Department of Justice in an effort to clear his name. Some FBI agents have said the bureau focused on Hatfill for far too long, ignoring other leads even though there was little or no evidence that Hatfill had ever even handled anthrax.

References

  1. 1

    Hewetson, J.F. et al Vaccine 26, 4262-4266 (2008)

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CDC anthrax page

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Dance, A. Biodefence researcher linked to anthrax attacks. Nature (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2008.1005

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