Ames link to anthrax meritless

Sara Tennessen and Wendy Weiskircher

Ames took the national spotlight Wednesday as rumors of a local connection to the Florida anthrax investigation circulated – rumors that state health officials steadily denied.

An anonymous Florida law enforcement official said preliminary testing of the anthrax that killed a Boca Raton man found a possible match to a strain identified by Ames researchers a half century ago.

But Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director and state epidemiologist for the Iowa Department of Health, said the rumor has no merit.

“[The rumor] made it sound like an Iowa lab in 1950 created this superbug out of nothing . and got people in Florida sick,” she said. “And that’s just absurd.”

As of Wednesday night, the sub-strain of anthrax in Florida had not been identified.

One strain of anthrax, Bacillus anthracis Ames – which was isolated from a sick animal at Iowa State in 1950 – is frequently used in research labs, said Jim Roth, ISU distinguished professor of veterinary microbiology and preventative medicine.

“Nobody in Ames is currently doing research on anthrax, either at the university or at the USDA labs,” he said. “[The Ames strain] has been a common strain in laboratories in the United States and around the world.”

If investigators determine the Ames strain of anthrax was the culprit bacteria that killed Robert Stevens, a supermarket tabloid photo editor, it still does not mean the anthrax came from Iowa, said Dr. Stephen Gleason, director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The sample could have come from any lab worldwide, he said.

“Any veterinary or medical institution may have use for samples for animal anthrax from time to time,” Gleason said. “[It] could have been obtained from anywhere.”

Anthrax is a bacteria that can be grown and stored in test tubes, Roth said.

“It’s highly resistant to dying and can last in the test tube for decades,” he said.

Identification of the Florida anthrax could help investigators find the source of the anthrax spores, Quinlisk said. The process to analyze the anthrax sample is similar to computerized DNA comparison, she said.

“If they find the same strain in somebody’s house or somebody’s car who is suspected,” investigators can determine if the spores were deliberately planted, Quinlisk said. “It’s like leaving their fingerprints.”

However, she said, the anthrax in Florida could have been a naturally occurring strain.

“I don’t think they’ve totally ruled that out yet,” she said.

Anthrax is considered a likely agent for biological terrorism because one of its forms can infect through breathing, it is highly lethal and its spores are more stable compared to other potential agents, Gleason said at a press conference in Des Moines Wednesday.

However, he said, Iowa’s anthrax precautionary measures are probably more advanced than other states.

Anthrax may be present at research laboratories in Iowa and across the country, he said, but since Sept. 11, security at all laboratories has been enhanced.

Animals, especially hoofed mammals, are more vulnerable to anthrax than humans, Roth said. The last case diagnosed in Iowa was in 1985 in an animal brought to Iowa from Wyoming, he said. Animals usually inhale anthrax, which can live in soil for decades, Roth said.

The risk of contracting anthrax is small, state health officials said, and they hope the perceived threat doesn’t cause a mass exodus from Ames.