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20 Years Later, A Survivor and Scholar Reflects on Amerithrax

The homegrown threat was a harbinger of modern biotech advances, and their potential unintended consequences.

Soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, anonymous letters containing deadly anthrax spores began arriving at media companies and congressional offices, including that of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Over the ensuing months, attacks killed five people and sickened 17 others across the United States.

“Amerithrax,” as it became known within the FBI, was eventually found to be a domestic attack, perpetrated by Dr. Bruce Ivins, head of the U.S. Army’s anthrax defense program at Fort Detrick, MD, and developed directly from U.S. military biotech research.

SPA Professor David Malet, who was a research assistant and a junior staffer in Daschle’s office during the October 15 attack, has devoted much scholarly attention to such possible consequences of bioterrorism and efforts to counter it.

In the days after 9/11, with the nation’s capital on high alert, media offices began reporting receiving anthrax letters. On Monday, October 15, an intern opened a letter in Daschle’s mail room in the Hart Senate Building, and white powder went everywhere. Security began circulating.

“They slowly went around the office,” said Malet, “quietly telling people, ‘OK, we have this situation. It's probably nothing, but everybody has to stay where they are, just in case.’”

President Bush announced the attack on TV before Malet learned that it was, in fact, confirmed to be anthrax. They shut off the air system and instituted full lockdown. Malet remembers calls from panicked family members begging him to get out.

“By this point, they have guys with guns at the door requesting that we not leave, so I really couldn’t just walk out of there,” he said. “It was a long day. They actually snuck a pizza delivery guy in, but nobody really thought about the consequences: they had to find him later and give him medication to make sure he hadn't tracked anthrax all over D.C.”

The Hart Senate building was shut down for several months for decontamination. Several people tested positive for anthrax in the office, and staffers were given vaccines and antibiotics as a precaution.

“I tend to joke with students that for the most part, I'm pretty chill, because I've already had my worst day at the office, hopefully, in 2001,” said Malet. “I was on antibiotics for 103 days. I had these army vaccinations that were designed for pre-anthrax, but nobody knew if it would mean anything if you've already been exposed.”

As life returned to normal on Capitol Hill, the investigation ramped up. Though the letters were dated 9/11 and contained anti-America language, handwriting experts quickly identified them as the work of a native English speaker. The FBI turned to domestic culprits, but the process moved slowly. It wasn’t until 2008, with the availability of genetic sequencing tests, that the trail led to Ivins, who had a history of mental illness and violent threats. He immediately committed suicide, and the case never went to trial.

“We'll never know the whole story,” said Malet. “It really got me thinking about Amerithrax as this unintended consequence of U.S. biological weapons research. They were supposed to be developing defenses against Soviet or Russian or rogue state WMD attacks. But these new technological innovations done in the name of national defense don't always go in the way that we're intending.”

Meanwhile, he added, the scale of biotech research has grown significantly in the last 20 years, mostly outside of the public eye, and the potential for fallout is greater than ever. Amerithrax led to a major investment in biosecurity in the 2000s. Pathogen-detecting sensors were installed in public places, vaccine research was accelerated, and significant public health data was collected and sent back to Ivin’s facility. Military R&D into biotechnology expanded into entirely new areas.

For example, said Malet, the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on gene therapy, real-life Captain America-type super soldier programs. One Department of Defense biotech manufacturing plant produces cell and human tissue samples; applications include improving battle readiness and restoring wounded soldiers and returning them to the battlefield. Some of these developments have already been deployed, including soldier and pilot reflex enhancement and lowered reliance on sleep, and life-saving medical advances that drastically decreased fatalities in Iraq.

“In the Iraq War, the Marines, and then the Army, introduced these advanced anticoagulants that stopped people from bleeding to death on the battlefield,” said Malet. “The rate of wounding was actually about the same in Iraq as in Vietnam, but at half the fatality rate, since people were not bleeding out.”

These lower fatality rates arguably shored up public support for the war. They also created unintended impacts on family and social services, as more severely wounded veterans returned home.

While such advancements could similarly improve medical and productivity outcomes for civilian society, they also represent the potential for misuse. Most of the research is outsourced, leaving it vulnerable to rogue actors (like Ivins) who have not been properly vetted. Also, as with innovations like radar or virtual reality, these could leak out to civilians before the consequences of public use have been fully considered.

In addition, biological enhancements introduce ethical issues on both the macro- and micro-levels.

“Like with nuclear weapons or some other advanced technologies, there's an idea of creating an asymmetric advantage, really advanced capabilities that other countries won't be able to match,” said Malet. “On civilian questions, you run into issues where certain richer, more advanced countries are going to have access to quality-of-life measures that won't be available elsewhere, breeding additional forms of political instability through resentment.”

In the 2020 U.S. riots, law enforcement supposedly used non-lethal heat technologies, illegal in warfare but legal for domestic crowd control, against protesters. Defense contractors have developed other tools for domestic use, including cybernetically-controlled insects or rodents that spy or make deliveries, “spiderman” pads based on gecko skin, and thought-controlled robotic arms. Biomimetic robotic dogs are used by police departments around the country to enter and scout potentially dangerous locations and neutralize suspects.

Meanwhile, overseas, the Chinese military is researching direct effect, or proteomic, weapons that can damage human organs, a process that Malet calls “gene therapy in reverse.”

“The idea,” he said, “is that you can push a button and make people's kidneys fail and incapacitate them. But you can restore them afterwards, and they can even be grateful to you.”

Even advances to protect or enhance human health and performance raise their own ethical quandaries. Genetic modifications of this type involve proprietary military technology, with the accompanying IP legalities.

“If proprietary technology has been added to your body,” said Malet, “it’s not clear whether you can ever actually fully retire from the military, or whether part of your body is perpetually the property of the U.S. government.”

And these are just the technologies we know about, said Malet. Top-secret advancements could introduce ethical and policy questions we would never think to ask, as long as R&D continues to outpace the necessary forethought or contingency planning.

“A lot of new developments could change our society, just like nuclear weapons, computers, and the internet, all military projects,” he said. “But I don't think anybody who's doing the R&D now is asking the big questions about what our society or what the international order could look like once these technologies appear, seemingly overnight.”

Malet’s research, including his 2016 book Biotechnology and International Security, poses these questions, and looks to bridge a gap in social science research on human biotech enhancement for military applications, and the related ethical concerns.

“It's really hard to find a lot of scholarship at this point,” said Malet. “Nuclear weapons have been used. Chemical weapons have been used. Until some of these newer forms of biotech are actually employed, this is all just hypothetical and of interest only to specialists.”

Hypothetical, perhaps, but no less critical. Malet believes that the consequences, like the Ivins’ of the world, should be considered before biotech weapons are completed and deployed.

“Once the technology is out there, it becomes an academic point about whether it's appropriate or not,” he said. “We have debates about new technologies that seem like science fiction, whether nuclear weapons or drones. Even though somebody has been working on them, out of sight, for years or decades, it seems like they just appear overnight, and they're a fact of life.”

“It’s become too late to have any meaningful debates about how and whether they should be used, because the barn door is already open. The cows already left.”