Suspicious Package Sparked Fears of Biological Terrorism

Countering Germ Warfare
by Terence Chea
Washington Post Staff Writer Source: The Washington Post
Page E05

November 17, 2000

B’nai B’rith Incident Spawned Tetracore’s Quick ID of Substances

Thomas O’Brien, Beverly Mangold, Bob Blase (who joined the company after its founding) and Bill Nelson.

A suspicious package discovered three years ago in the mail room of B’nai B’rith’s Washington headquarters sparked fears of biological terrorism.

Authorities had no way to quickly tell if the oozing red substance found in a Manila envelope at the Jewish community organization was really the deadly bacterium anthrax, as its label indicated. Thus, workers were barricaded in their offices for more than eight hours, two city blocks were shut down and two employees were stripped to their underwear and hosed with chemicals on the sidewalk.

In the end, the incident turned out be a hoax--scientists analyzed the material and discovered it to be a common household bacterium. But such hoaxes helped spawn a Maryland biotechnology company that’s developing tools to prevent panicked reactions to the specter of biological attack.

Bill Nelson, Thomas O’Brien, Gary Long and Beverly Mangold were part of the team of scientists at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda called on to analyze the suspicious material during the B’nai B’rith incident. Two years ago, the four colleagues pulled together $100,000 to start Tetracore LLC, a Gaithersburg company that makes devices to detect agents of biological warfare and infectious diseases such as anthrax, plague and smallpox.

Tetracore, whose founders helped the U.S. military inspect biological weapons sites in Iraq, makes detection tools for hazardous materials response teams, known as HazMat units, which would be first on the scene in situations involving biological and chemical attack.

The company, which has not taken money from outside investors, generated about $400,000 in revenue last year and expects to make $3 million this year, according to Nelson. The company now has 25 employees and just moved into new offices in Gaithersburg.

Tetracore makes two kinds of diagnostic tools to detect deadly germs. Its BioThreat Alert test strips, which work like home pregnancy tests, let emergency response teams know if a disease agent is present within minutes. The test strip is a small plastic device in which a sample of a questionable substance is placed. The device contains anthrax antibodies, proteins produced to combat the anthrax bacterium. If anthrax is present, it binds to the antibodies and causes a white paper strip to change colors.

"This gives them an opportunity to quickly pick up material and analyze it," Nelson said. "If it is anthrax, they could quickly take the necessary measures."

So far, the company has designed a test for anthrax, or Bacillus anthracis, a livestock bacterium that can be deadly when inhaled by humans. It has developed a proprietary method to make the anthrax antibodies using cells from mice. It is making similar test strips for other disease agents such as ricin, botulinum toxin and plague.

The company also develops DNA-based tests that detect the agents by recognizing their genetic sequences. The genetic tests, meant to be used alongside the test strips, are much more sensitive than the strips and can detect bacteria long after death.

They are similar to the tests Nelson, Long and O’Brien used when they helped the United Nations Special Commission inspect Iraqi biological weapons facilities after the Persian Gulf War.

"Even though they had stopped producing anthrax a long time ago, they couldn’t get rid of all the evidence," Nelson said.

In recent years, fear of biological attacks has been growing among public officials, afraid that disease agents will get into the hands of terrorists and be deliberately released on the public. Fears were stoked in 1995 when Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released the deadly nerve gas sarin in the Tokyo subway system. The group had previously made several attempts to use anthrax and other toxins.

In 1996, after the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress passed the Domestic Preparedness Program to train public safety and health-care workers to react to terrorist attacks.

In addition to the potential for biological attack, officials are concerned about the growing number of hoaxes like the one at Washington’s B’nai B’rith building.

Montgomery County recently purchased about two dozen of Tetracore’s test strips for anthrax. Theodore Jarboe, the county’s fire marshal, said rapid testing devices are essential in dealing with potential biological attacks.

"Time is critical when you’re dealing with the release of a biological agent that could be harmful to people," Jarboe said. "The sooner we know if a substance is present or not, the quicker we can determine the best course of action to manage the incident."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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