- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

MEXICO CITY Two germ banks tucked away in the smog and sprawl of the hemisphere's largest city stock dozens of petri dishes filled with anthrax, the bacteria that have sparked a worldwide panic.
No armed guards patrol, no security cameras scan the germ banks and no health officials move about in germ-proof space suits. In fact, these labs sell, swap or even give away the potentially deadly microbe to those with scientific credentials.
Scientists estimate that germ banks from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, Paris to Perth, keep dozens of strains of Bacillus anthracis, the germ that causes anthrax, and millions of other potentially deadly bacteria on-hand for research purposes.
Visits to several germ centers around the world disclosed that hazardous spores often are shipped out in hard-plastic travel vials to hospitals looking to check a diagnosis or to researchers.
When the Persian Gulf war brought fears of biological weapons pumping germ-laced gas into the Iraqi deserts where U.S. forces roamed, the United States began limiting who could receive hazardous microorganisms from its germ centers.
Since 1997, it has been illegal for laboratories to ship any deadly microbes to destinations in or outside the United States without permission from the Justice Department.
Regulations in many places outside the United States are looser.
"There are suggested guidelines for the way the germ banks of the world should behave, but it is left up to each individual country to enforce these rules," said Fernando Montiel, coordinator of biochemistry at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "Some countries are more strict than others."
In Mexico, the issue is complicated by the fact that the country has an especially high concentration of potent anthrax spores in its soil. Since 1991, more than 110 people have died from the disease contracted in the Mexican countryside or from infected livestock, said Hector Villalva, head of the microbiology department at the National School of Biological Sciences, one of Mexico's two germ banks.
"How is it worth it to take extra security measures at laboratories when you can find the same anthrax in nature?" Mr. Villalva asked. "The labs are not the problem."
On the wooded Mexico City campus of the biological sciences school, vials of anthrax are kept in an unlocked, closet-sized office marked "private."
In a sealed lab there last week, microbiology professor Jorge Zepeda showed 35 college freshmen how to isolate potent anthrax strains in a sealed lab.
"This is the bacteria for anthrax," Mr. Zepeda said, holding up a red-plastic petri dish containing a collection of translucent cells, "but if I were to open this right now, it wouldn't hurt any of us."
Still, "someone with the expertise, the money and the time to keep trying different combinations could do anything to the bacteria," he said.
China's National Center for Medical Culture Collections distributes harmful forms of anthrax only to scientists with letters of introduction from the Ministry of Health.
Such scrutiny has paid off.
One Istanbul University laboratory said it received a questionable fax three years ago from a British organization it didn't recognize, requesting samples of harmful bacteria.


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