The anthrax attacks of 2001

It has been just about a decade since the  biological terrorist event of 2001, which occurred a few weeks after the events of 9/11.  Something 10 years ago probably feels like ancient history to most current students, however, like the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, the anthrax attacks hit me profoundly and personally. Anthrax is a rare disease in humans. Although it is a notifiable disease, in the past 8 years there have only been 3 documented cases in the United States. Consequently, public health officials immediately suspected a terror attack when multiple cases occurred in short order in October 2001.

The investigation by the FBI took several years,  but relatively quickly focused on identifying a suspect with access to bacteriological equipment, either at a US government or an academic laboratory. The strain of Bacillus anthracis that was recovered from the contaminated letters and from the patients was well known to investigators at the US Army Medical Research laboratory (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, MD, and it was apparent that a certain amount of technical expertise was essential for producing the tainted letters and mailing them.

The FBI has closed the Amerithrax case, and determined that one individual, Bruce Ivins who was a researcher at USAMRIID, was responsible for producing and distributing the letters in 2001. Sequencing of the B. anthracis isolates from the attack, and comparison with laboratory isolates, indicated that Ivins had sole custody of the vial of anthrax used in the attacks. Ivins was put under FBI surveillance in 2007, and he killed himself with an overdose of acetominophin in 2008. The FBI considers the case closed, although questions remain and the motive may never be known.

Prior to going to York College, I had a job interview in 2007 at USAMRIID, and had the opportunity to visit Fort Detrick, and meet the researchers in one of the “hot labs” studying encephalatis virus. I met scientists, both career Army and civilian scientists, who were dedicated to keeping the world safe from the deadliest infectious agents. These were people who were putting their lives on the line, and putting themselves into contact with pathogens like smallpox and Ebola virus on a daily basis. All of the researchers were intimately aware of the connection of the Anthrax attacks with the laboratory, and knew that focus of the investigation was on USAMRIID. And in the end, it was the knowledge that one of their colleagues could be responsible for this horrible event that hit them the hardest, even in 2007 when the public eye was not on them anymore.


About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on October 13, 2011, in A bit 'o history. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I suppose I was too young at the time to educate myself with what was going on but I had NO idea that whole ordeal was happening right out of Frederick? Did I read this correctly?

  2. I saw something about this event yesterday, which maintained that controversy still exists in this case, due to the presence of small metal particles found in the anthrax letters. The metal bits helped with the aerosolization of the spores, and increased their lethality. The FBI however has no plans to reopen the cases. And yes, all of this was almost certainly (my opinion is also that Ivins likely acted alone) occurring less than an hour away from York, PA.

  3. Thank you for clearing that up for me.. this post is an eye opener.

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