WASHINGTON - The United States plans to produce a new strain of anthrax to test the effectiveness of its vaccines against the deadly biological agent, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
Work to produce the strain has not yet begun, but administration lawyers have concluded that it would be permitted under a 1972 global treaty that bans biological weapons but allows research for defensive purposes, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.
Clarke said the anthrax project was devised in response to a 1997 report in the scientific journal Vaccine on a new anthrax strain believed to have been developed by the Russians through genetic engineering.
"We have a vaccine that works against a known anthrax strain. What we want to do is make sure we are prepared for any surprises, for anything that might happen that might be a threat," she said.
The plan calls for producing a small quantity of the strain for testing purposes, she said.
The United States has sought samples of the modified anthrax strain from Russia but so far has not obtained any, she said.
The project is part of a broader secret research effort by the US intelligence agencies in response to growing fears of deadly germ warfare attacks by rogue states or terrorists.
The efforts include a CIA project which built and tested a model of a Soviet-designed bomblet for disseminating biological agents, and a germ factory in the Nevada desert made with commercially available materials.
Clarke said the germ factory, a project run by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, used benign "simulants" to test capabilities to detect the signature of biological agents.
The project also was meant to show how easy it was for a terrorist group to make biological agents using widely available materials.
Fears that a Soviet-designed germ bomblet was being sold on the international market prompted the CIA project to build and test a model in order to understand how it worked.
The New York Times, which first disclosed the secret research projects, said the model lacked a fuse and other parts that would make it a working bomb.
Nevertheless, after it was built last year, it touched off debate among US government experts, with some officials arguing that it violated the prohibition against development of biological weapons, the Times said.
The White House vigorously defended the secret research effort as "purely defensive" and fully compliant with the Biological Weapons Convention.
"This is purely bio-defensive research, which is allowed under the Biological Weapons Convention," said Sean McCormack, a White House national security spokesman.
Clarke said the anthrax project, which was begun during the previous administration, has been subjected to intergovernmental debate, legal reviews and congressional briefings.
"This program's undergone serious, serious scrutiny by a number of people. We are compliant, and we will remain so," she said.
Copyright © 2001 AFP