In mid-October, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved a Defense Intelligence Agency project to develop a genetically modified, more potent form of anthrax to see if it could defeat the anthrax vaccine currently used by the United States.
The approval followed consultations that considered the project’s legality under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and U.S. law, a point of concern among some analysts. (See ACT, October 2001.) The convention outlaws development and possession of biological agents for offensive purposes but permits defensive activity. The Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 implements the convention in the United States.
According to a U.S. official, the consultations concluded that there are “no legal roadblocks” to undertaking the project.
The United States began trying to acquire the modified anthrax strain in 1998, after it learned of a reported Russian effort to develop the strain. However, the United States failed to obtain a sample of the anthrax from Moscow, and early this year the Defense Intelligence Agency began exploring the feasibility of developing the strain itself.
Whether a contract to produce the vaccine has been signed remains unclear, but according to a Defense Intelligence Agency official, the Battelle Memorial Institute “most likely” would be the contractor to develop the anthrax.
Meanwhile, a U.S. request to Russia for a sample of the strain is still pending before the Russian Export Control Commission. According to the U.S. official, Russia has been more cooperative on this issue since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and may approve the U.S. request “very shortly.” If obtained, the sample could render the U.S. project moot, the official said.