The big puzzle about anthrax is that terrorists have so far used it so little. After all, the bulk of the world's population lives in countries where it occurs naturally, and where it isn't difficult to get live material to start a culture. The notion that you need to be trained in biological warfare to grow it is ludicrous. In principle, any doctor, dentist, vet, microbiology graduate or hospital bacteriology lab technologist could produce it. In Britain, at least 100,000 people have the knowledge, and even if they've forgotten some of it, they know which textbook contains the necessary details. Preparing spores is easy: biological warfare researchers used to grow them on Marmite agar, which incorporated that well-known yeast extract. 'Weaponising' the spores isn't difficult either. It's true that something has to be added to spore suspensions to stop them clumping when they are prepared and dried, but as David Henderson from Porton Down said in 1952, in a journal to be found in any medical school library, 'fortunately many substances added to the suspension will prevent clumping. The simplest and most effective that has been found is sodium alginate used in concentrations of about 0.1 per cent.' Laboratory-quality sodium alginate costs £42 per half-kilo - enough to treat 200,000 billion spores - and is available from laboratory suppliers. It comes from seaweed and is widely used in the food industry - in ice cream, for example, to stop ice crystals forming.
LRB 29 November 2001 | PDF Download