Researchers Making Progress on Anthrax Research Scientists studying anthrax say they are making progress understanding the bacteria and developing new vaccines. But the field is much larger than it once was, and some wonder if that's wise or necessary.
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Researchers Making Progress on Anthrax Research

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Researchers Making Progress on Anthrax Research

Researchers Making Progress on Anthrax Research

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Four years ago this month, a photojournalist in Florida died from something known for killing cattle, anthrax. Envelopes containing powdered spores turned up in other newsrooms and on Capitol Hill; four more people died. One result was that government started pouring money into biodefense; this year, it's spending an estimated $7.6 billion. Scientists who study anthrax recently gathered for a meeting in New Mexico, and as NPR's David Kestenbaum reports, the field is larger than it's ever been.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

The conference covered anthrax and its relatives, and the organizers had to cap attendance at 350 people. Martin Hugh-Jones is an anthrax expert at Louisiana State University. He says not long ago, the anthrax community was tiny.

Mr. MARTIN HUGH-JONES (Louisiana State University): In the days when I was first started, you know, there were six of us in North America who worked on anthrax, maybe 20 around the world, teams. But now there are over 200, maybe 300 institutes in the United States alone that are licensed to work with anthrax.

KESTENBAUM: Anthrax has been around in nature for eons, and for decades it's also been known as a potential weapon. The bacteria can form hearty spores; they can be easily stockpiled or set loose in a city or a subway. Phil Hanna at the University of Michigan was studying anthrax before the attacks for a different reason. His team wanted to learn about infectious disease in general.

Mr. PHIL HANNA (University of Michigan): Yeah, I was actually driving back from vacation when I heard the first report four years ago, and I was shocked. I said, `This is going to change the world and my world,' and it has. The amount of oversights and the amount of regulation has been overwhelming at times. The amount of money has increased, but so has the pace of the research. There's a sense of urgency here.

KESTENBAUM: The new funding is paying off. Lots of general research has been done on how the bacteria live. Scientists also presented work on new vaccines, forensic techniques and early warning detection systems. One technical poster did cause a stir. It described how to make anthrax in a powdered form that can be easily inhaled. Some researchers wondered if the authors shouldn't have kept that little bit to themselves. Martin Hugh-Jones says he has another worry: What happens to all these labs if the government loses interest?

Mr. HUGH-JONES: What happens when their money is turned off and all those people have to find work? I hope they've got a good system for calling in everybody's collection, documenting it and killing it, because otherwise we're doing to be knee deep in some very nasty bugs in some very impoverished institutes.

KESTENBAUM: A few scientists wore name tags that read `FBI,' a reminder that the anthrax case of four years ago is still unsolved. Several researchers said that they had been questioned by the FBI since the attacks. One scientist involved in giving out grants said investigators asked if he knew anyone who had been turned down and was angry about it. Phil Hanna says his lab does take care to screen its employees.

Mr. HANNA: Everyone goes through their FBI, Department of Justice background checks. We try to use the best judgment we can in not accepting people into our research groups or training that we think may be unstable or have agendas. But I think that learning is good, and that outweighs the potential for people using that knowledge for evil agendas.

KESTENBAUM: The FBI presence was also a reminder that someone here might have been involved in the attacks. Phil Hanna doesn't think so.

Mr. HANNA: No, not really. I know these guys, and the people I know, at least, it'd be impossible to imagine them even contemplating such a thing.

KESTENBAUM: Hanna does wonder about the vast sums of money being spent on anthrax. The government hasn't publicly released much of its intelligence on biological threats, and Hanna says in the absence of more information, it's hard to know if this is the right way to proceed or if more funding should go to tuberculosis or cancer, which are killing people right now. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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