Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, the presidential candidates trade barbs on race. That's ahead when we do our weekly political wrap-up with Juan Williams. First, one of the great enduring mysteries left over from the 9/11 days may be resolved. This is about the anthrax-in-the-mail story that emerged weeks after the airline hijackings. A government scientist who's come under suspicion has committed suicide. The Los Angeles Times reported today that the Department of Justice was about to serve criminal charges against him. Joining us to talk about Bruce Ivins, this scientist, who he was, what he did, NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca. Joe, welcome back to Day to Day.

JOE PALCA: Thanks.

CHADWICK: So, Bruce Ivins, he worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. That's at...

PALCA: Yeah.

CHADWICK: Fort Dietrich, Maryland. What did he do there?

PALCA: Yeah. This is a very secure area which is set up to do research on some of the most dangerous pathogens that are known to man, actually. They have what's called a biosafety level-four containment facility, maybe you've seen pictures of these guys in moon suits, where they deal with these, you know, highly deadly agents.

Bruce Ivins worked there, and his principal role, at least as far as I can tell from looking through the papers he's published - now, this is a very secret place, so you don't get a lot of information out of them - but his role there seems to have been to work on vaccines to protect against anthrax. In particular, he was trying to make a vaccine that would be more robust, that it might help the immune system fight off exposure to anthrax. Of course, the military is very interested in this, because they're worried about anthrax as a bioweapon.

CHADWICK: Do we know anything more about why he originally came under suspicion?

PALCA: Well, specifically, not, I mean, the FBI and Justice Department aren't talking at the moment. But in general, the thinking goes like this. The material that was recovered in these attacks back in 2001, the anthrax, was of a quality that suggested that it was made by somebody who knew what he or she was doing. And by that, I mean, anthrax is a bacterium and it comes in a spore, and you have to get the spores to just the right size to make them effective as a weapon.

If you make them too small, they blow into the air and they blow away, and nobody inhales them. And that's what you have to do to get somebody really sick. You have to inhale it or ingest it. If you make them too big, they fall at the ground and people step on them, and they never get into - you know, it never comes into the lungs. So, this, the stuff they found, was just the right size to be dangerous. And that's why it took so long to decontaminate the places where this stuff should up.

CHADWICK: OK. What more do we know about Mr. Ivins? He killed himself this week. He's been working at this secret facility, as you say, for quite a long time, so it's hard to get details about him, but what do we know?

PALCA: Well, I've talked to some of his coauthors. First of all, I don't even think we're certain that he killed himself. That seems to be what the reports are saying, but I've talked with some of his coauthors and people who worked with him, and he seemed to have been a mild-mannered person, not the kind of person you would immediately think, this is a person who is going to launch an attack on people that would release this dangerous pathogen, not at all.

CHADWICK: Here's a basic question, Joe. Why is we're continuing on anthrax at places like Fort Dietrich, when the United States has renounced the use of bioweapons in the first place?

PALCA: The Army will tell you, look, if we're going to develop counter measures to this - we're good guys, and we're never going to use these weapons, but there are bad guys out there, and it's only prudent to take steps to - make counter measures. And in order to make counter measures, we have to first make the weapons so that we can then figure out how to make counter measures against them. So, that's why they say they're doing this, and that's why they continue to do this. But it's also very secret because they don't like to have people going up there and touring the facilities. So, it's - you know, trust the government, I guess, is the bet - the bottom line here.

CHADWICK: NPR's Joe Palca from Washington. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.