Way back in 2001, letters containing powdered anthrax were sent to a bunch of news reporters and Congressmen, and because the powder was so fine several innocent people, mainly those who worked in the Post Office, died from the infection.

Despite initial worries that it was terrorism, later reports assured the American people that it probably was not from a foreign source, but an inside job, since the strain of Anthrax was not a multi-resistant strain but an ordinary but virulent barnyard strain of Anthrax that was traced to an American bioweapons lab.

So first, they hounded Dr. Hatfield, until he sued to get them off his back. Then they hounded one Dr. Ivins, until he went paranoid from the pressure and killed himself with Tylenol with codeine.

Once Dr. Ivins killed himself, case closed.

Or is it?

Last week, esteemed political columnist Michael Barone noted:

Here’s some news I missed. Edward Jay Epstein reported on December 21 that the FBI’s anthrax case has fallen apart. … Epstein reports, it turns out that Dr. Ivins did not have access to the sophisticated form of anthrax used in September 2001.

Actually, this is not news: even in 2008, NYTimes reporters noted that even if Dr. Ivins had access to this strain of anthrax but not in the “aerosolized” form used in the letters, and that he lacked expertise in weaponizing the anthrax…

Here you need some technial information.

Anthrax bacteria can hibernate in “spores”, but the Spores clump together into particles that are too large and heavy to get into the lungs.

So if you are in contact with spores, usually you develop skin lesions, or if they end up in your food, you develop Gastrointestinal anthrax.

Such infections are rare, but do occur: there are several reports of cutaneous anthrax in Americans who bought and used African drums made from goat skins, for example.

But to use Anthrax as a bioweapon, you have to get the particle tiny enough to get deep into a person’s lung. The tiny dry particles then float like dust, and can get deep into the lungs when you breath them in.

But the problem with anthrax spores is that they don’t like to become that tiny.

Because Anthrax spores tends to clump up, to weaponize it you have to grind up the spores, and then add something to stop them from clumping together again...and do this in an environment that protects you and those around you  from inhaling the micro spores.

This is not too hard, if one has the expertise, the equipment, and a lab with specialized exhaust/containment equipment. But if this was done at a lab, someone would have noticed the illegal use of equipment. And although an elaborate “underwater” theory of grinding up spores was postulated for Dr. Hatfield, no one has proven this could actually work.

Yes, Dr. Ivins worked with anthrax, he worked with the liquid form, not the powder form.

So why suspect Dr. Ivins?

There was evidence that Dr. Ivin’s locker was contaminated with anthrax spores, and this “evidence” that made the FBI suspect Ivins. Yet the contamination episode was not terrorism,but a laboratory breach, that resulted in cutaneous anthrax. This contamination could have been merely been due to sloppy lab technique (in itself worrisome, but not necessarily connected with the anthrax letters).

The simple fact that Dr. Ivins probably did not have access to equipment that would allow him to process the anthrax spores to make them that small, and his fellow scientists told the NYTimes that he did not have the expertise to be able to do it (and remember, you make a mistake, and you die…it’s not something that is easy to do without proper training). All of this makes a lot of folks think he was the scapegoat for an FBI that has no idea of where the letters came from.

What is worse, the obvious problems with the case is fueling conspiracy theories.

That is why many folks figure that the anthrax came from another place, perhaps from an overseas lab that got the Ames strain to make anthrax vaccine, but secretly turned it into a bioweapon.

Of course, if you are an insomniac, you already “know” about this

And conspiracy theories flourish when obvious questions by those of us who have a little knowledge of the problem are ignored or ridiculed.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder if the investigation hounded an innocent scientist to his death.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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