U.S. Anthrax Vaccine May Be Ineffective

A chilling discovery about the possible nature of a Soviet biological warfare agent has fueled a debate among government scientists as to whether the current anthrax vaccine will adequately protect U.S. troops.

The discovery is that the anthrax spores released in a 1979 accident at a Soviet military facility in Sverdlovsk probably contained a blend of at least four different strains of anthrax bacilli, as if it had been designed to overwhelm a vaccine. Sverdlovsk -- now Yekaterinburg -- lies in the Urals some 1,400 kilometers east of Moscow.

The U.S. Pentagon announced Dec. 15 last year that 2.4 million military personnel would be vaccinated against anthrax, the first attempt to protect the entire military against a chemical or biological weapon.

The anthrax bacillus is horrifying enough as a battlefield weapon, but the new finding brings into the open what biological warfare experts have known for many years: that disease agents can be enhanced to render vaccines and antibiotics less effective.

The finding comes from an analysis of tissues taken from victims who died in the Sverdlovsk outbreak. The tissues were saved by two Russian pathologists and never came to the attention of Soviet authorities. Later, the two Russians sent samples of the tissues to U.S. scientists interested in the outbreak.

Recently, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory reanalyzed the tissues with a highly sensitive modern technique. Dr. Paul Jackson identified at least four different strains of anthrax in the tissues of the victims.

The Los Alamos finding raises the question of why the Soviet scientists would go to the trouble of developing an anthrax weapon with many strains instead of just one. Since they would almost certainly have acquired the U.S. vaccine, some experts believe that the multistrain blend was designed to overcome its defenses.

Another more innocent possibility is that the multiple strains came from the vaccines with which many inhabitants of Sverdlovsk were inoculated after the accident. The Soviets used a vaccine composed of two live but nontoxic strains of the bacillus.

The news release issued by Los Alamos in conjunction with Jackson's report states that "a mixture of strains used as a weapon might overcome vaccines against anthrax or therapeutic agents used to combat the resulting disease.''

Colonel Arthur Friedlander, a leading U.S. Army expert on anthrax, strongly calling the statement "entirely speculative and incorrect." The U.S. vaccine that will be given to all military personnel is not a live vaccine -- like the Soviet one -- but is based on a single protein component of the anthrax bacillus. This component is the same in all strains of anthrax, Friedlander said, meaning that the U.S. vaccine should protect people against one or many strains.

Later Monday, the Los Alamos press office revised its statement so as to avoid criticism of the army's vaccine, while repeating the original principle.

Although inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission have recovered anthrax spores from Iraq, it could not be learned whether they contained one or many strains of the bacillus.

Dr. Frank Gaffney Jr., director of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, said he had no specific knowledge of Soviet-Iraqi cooperation on biological warfare but "the closeness of the two regimes makes me think at a minimum that Iraq was getting Soviet support."

The publication of the Los Alamos findings seems designed to put firm though not embarrassing public pressure on Russia to explain exactly what was happening at Sverdlovsk. The Biological Warfare Convention, of which the former Soviet Union was a signatory, forbids the manufacture and stockpiling of biological weapons but does not prohibit research.

In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin said of the Sverdlovsk accident, "The KGB admitted that our military developments were the cause," but he did not elaborate on how the accident occurred.

"What the world still needs to hear is what was the work that was going on there,'' said Dr. Matthew Meselson, an expert on biological weapons at Harvard University. "There are people there who know what happened and they should speak up.''