- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2003

DENVER, Feb. 17 (UPI) — Tough new evidentiary standards will be needed to prosecute perpetrators of bioterror attacks, a panel of experts has concluded.

Examining current standards of evidence, the panel warned convictions of bioterrorists might not be possible unless researchers develop new ways to establish irrefutable identities of dangerous pathogens.

"As a discipline, we need to be prepared," said Abigail Salyers, a professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Let's be thinking ahead so we don't have (a situation) where the validity of the tests used to gather certain evidence (becomes) the focal point of a trial."

Speaking at a news briefing at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week, Salyers said the attacks of anthrax sent through the U.S. mail in late 2001 raised a number of questions about dealing with biological materials in court trials — a discipline she called bioforensics.

Another panelist, Paul Keim, a genetics professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, worked with researchers at the Institute of Genome Research in Rockville, Md., to complete the genetic sequence of the anthrax bacterial infection of Robert Stevens, 63, a photo editor at the Sun tabloid in South Florida and the first fatality of the letter attacks. It was the first time researchers had used a whole genetic sequence to identify a pathogen's particular strain.

Although the origins of the anthrax bacterial spores have not yet been identified, if and when they are, Keim asked whether such evidence would be sufficient to convict the person who sent the anthrax letters through the mail.

Another unanswered question, panel members said, is whether physicians who detect possible infections from biowarfare agents, and extract blood, fluid or tissue samples from their patients, could process those samples properly so they could be considered admissible evidence in court.

"Physicians aren't used to (keeping track of criminal evidence)," Keim told reporters. "They need to be educated that they may be dealing with a crime scene."

Panel members also noted although organisms, such as the smallpox virus, and anthrax and plague bacteria, are most commonly thought of as bioweapons, other microbes — such as Escherichia coli and salmonella — also are candidates. Physicians and other first responders should be concerned about such possibilities as well, they said.

The U.S. government lists potential bioterror agents, but "there should be frequent reappraisals of these lists," Keim wrote last June in a report released at the briefing. It is important be aware, he said, bioterror weapons could cause "economic and agricultural damage," as well as illness and death.

Bruce Budowle, senior scientist at the FBI's laboratory in Washington, D.C., said a working group comprised of microbiologists and other investigators from government agencies and universities has begun developing standards for submitting evidence in trials involving bioweapon attacks or using microbes to commit crimes — such as deliberately infecting another person with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The FBI and the Department of Defense have established a bioforensics analysis center at Fort Dietrick, Md. — where most of the U.S. government's anti-biowarfare activities are located — as part of the effort, Budowle said.

The working group will address a number of issues, said Joseph Campos, director of the microbiology laboratory at Children's National Medical Center in Washington. The issues include making sure forensic tests are valid, that labs conducting the tests follow strict procedures and that lab personnel are well trained.

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