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New, simple anthrax
antidote discovered

An answer to one of
the deadliest bacteria on earth?

By Jon Basil Utley
© 1999

A new, simple, and easily manufactured antidote for anthrax has apparently been discovered, according to the University of Michigan's News and Information Services.

In tests, even very low concentrations killed 90 percent of virulent strains of anthrax spores in a culture dish. Mice, injected with B.cereus spores, a close relative to anthrax, but less dangerous for laboratory testing, had an 80 percent recovery rate. The spores cause large and spreading skin lesions similar to anthrax. Tests to simulate inhaled anthrax spores were also promising because the product, BCTP, has no toxic effects on nasal or lung membranes. The medicine also works on a wide variety of other bacteria and viruses including ebola, another deadly threat, and influenza. It is made of soybean oil, triton-X detergent and a phosphate solvent.

Anthrax is one of the deadliest bacteria on earth. In its spore form it is almost indestructible and easily transported. Secretary of Defense William Cohen has repeatedly warned of its potential use by terrorists against American cities, warning that millions could die from small amounts dispersed in the air. Others warn of retaliation against Americans from various of Washington's bombing victims, arguing that the threat is a potential consequence of cruise missile diplomacy. Still others fear home-grown terrorists using it. Funding for bio-terrorism defense has increased from $91 million in 1998 to an expected $334 million for 2000.

The Defense Department's Advanced Research Project Agency is funding tests for various new antidotes. Common anthrax can be treated with simple antibiotics, such as Doxyxyline used for acne, provided it is diagnosed and treated early. However, new strains resistant to common antibiotics have been developed overseas, according to James R. Baker, director of the research study. Dr. Baker is director of the Center for Biologic Nanotechnology at the University of Michigan Medical School. The promising antidote, BCTP, looks like skim milk and animals thrive on drinking it. Details about the discovery were published in the Journal of Civil Defense (May-June 1999) of the American Civil Defense Association and in Science in June 1999. Tests are continuing at the Army's Fort Dietrich chemical warfare facilities.

The new product easily breaks down the anthrax spores' protein shell, something previously very difficult to do. "It appears that the oil acts as a nutrient that tricks the spores to start producing cell membranes which can then be disrupted," says Dr. Baker. Spores of bacteria are so tough that they are known to survive hundreds of years lying dormant. Dr. Baker, in the Science report, says the product is best suited for external use.

Current vaccination defenses against anthrax are quite unsatisfactory, according to Dr. Jane Orient, director of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness. In another study, Biological Weapons and Vaccines, also in the Journal of Civil Defense issue, she quotes a 1994 Staff Report of the Congressional Committee on Veterans Affairs as saying, "the vaccine's safety, particularly when given to thousands of soldiers in conjunction with other vaccines, is not well established." The vaccine was licensed in 1970. Animal studies have shown survival rates as low as 4 percent and as high as 100 percent after anthrax exposure.

Dr. Orient quotes Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine which states, "The current vaccines are impure and chemically complex, elicit only slow-onset protective immunity, provide incomplete protection, and cause significant adverse reactions." One interpretation of the Gulf War Syndrome is that it came from the wide mix of vaccines, insecticides, insect repellents, insect bites, and anticholinesterases given to the troops. French troops who received little of the vast mix given to American and English troops have had no cases of Gulf War Syndrome.

"Complicating the assessment," she writes, "and contributing to veterans' mistrust of Washington, is poor record-keeping about chemical exposures and vaccines. There are no adequate records of recipients of special immunizations not in general use, e.g anthrax and botulinum." Also, she reports, pertussis vaccine may have been added to soldiers' vaccines to speed up the effectiveness of anthrax vaccine. It can induce immunity in seven weeks instead of 32 weeks time with simple anthrax vaccine. But the anthrax-pertussis combination has caused severe loss of weight in animal testing.

A cheap, easily produced and stored antidote for anthrax could vastly ease the fears in many American cities and in the U.S. military where many personnel fear taking the current vaccine.

Jon Basil Utley is the Robert A. Taft Fellow in Constitutional and International Studies at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also edits the the Against Bombing website.


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