Germ research gets urgent

Second of two parts

Continuing bioterrorism scares are breathing new life into obscure scientific projects as the nation gropes for a way to defend itself from deadly microbes.

The sudden interest in microbiology is fueled by revelations such as the discovery of a mobile bioterrorism laboratory that traveled Iraqi highways.

A few thousand miles away, a South African court is revealing details of an apartheid-era contingency plan to use anthrax on black communities.

The U.S. government is waging an uphill battle against the tiny and nearly untraceable microbes of bioterrorism.

“If you can brew beer, you can make a bug,” FBI spokesman Bill Carter said, recalling a warning from an FBI scientist on manufactured viruses.

The elusiveness of the bacteria spores and microscopic viruses is turning bioterrorism research into big business. Companies that focused on cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are finding bigger profits in vaccines, antidotes and other bug-fighting tools.

But the bioterrorism scare also is creating new fears for researchers, both in terms of safety and criminal liability.

Good for business

Concerns about bioterrorism are resulting in the kind of device Army scientists demonstrated at a recent biodefense conference in Baltimore.

The handheld “microarray” system tests white blood cells to detect viruses within 36 hours of exposure, sometimes even before victims know they are sick.

The device is supposed to be an early warning system against biological bombs. It was developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research for the malaria soldiers might encounter in other countries.

“In many cases the products of that research apply to public health,” said Chuck Dasey, spokesman for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.

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