Sandia LabNews

Anthrax attacks - 10 years later: Bioterror attack on US soil helped accelerate Sandia’s move into biotech and biosecurity arenas


ANTICIPATING THREATS — In this 1999 photo, Sandia researcher Mark Tucker (6632)examines two petri dishes: one with a simulant of anthrax growing in it (left), the other treated with the decontaminating formulation developed at Sandia (right). (Photo by Randy Montoya)

The nation was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks when the first of what are called simply the anthrax letters arrived at the offices of two media outlets. The letters were postmarked Sept. 18, 2001; three weeks later, and four days after the first death, two more letters were posted, headed for Senate offices. 

Perhaps because the range of important dates connected to the anthrax letters stretched over a period of weeks and because the first was so soon after the 9/11 attacks, the events are often linked in our collective thinking. And at first, many feared they were. In the first days after Sept. 11, 2001, before US authorities could determine whether the 9/11 attacks were a single assault or a beginning, the fear of a biological attack loomed large. Whether an airborne dispersal of some dangerous pathogen or an assault on facilities that housed them, biological attacks were a big part of the conversation as US authorities tried to anticipate any and all kinds of attacks and were looking to Sandia for guidance.

Almost immediately, Senior Manager Duane Lindner (8120) was asked to investigate how well Sandia’s environmental detection tools, developed in the late 1990s, would operate in a plume of concrete dust should they be needed right away at ground zero. Still another team was examining what it would take to protect federal facilities near the World Trade Center crash site if a biological or chemical release were imminent. And Senior Manager Ren Salerno (6820), who at the time was a technical staff member, flew to Washington the day before the first letters were posted to discuss with US Department of Agriculture officials the security of the government’s infectious disease research labs.

The discovery of the first anthrax letters – so soon after the terrorist attacks – pitched fear into frenzy as worst fears were realized, again in a way that was before unimaginable. Within weeks, Sandia was mobilized on multiple fronts in the biological sphere. Tapping Sandia’s longtime strengths in physical security and technology development, these new programs solidified the foundation for Sandia’s then-nascent biological programs that today are recognized globally and are poised for significant growth. 

 “Suddenly, this was not a theoretical event, it was not a hypothetical, it was not something that would only happen somewhere else,” Duane says. “We had individuals dying from exposure to anthrax. Just the stark reality of this was very much driven home. And it highly motivated everyone involved. “

Foam marks the beginning

In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan killed 13 people by releasing sarin gas into the Tokyo subways. It was a wake-up call for counterterrorism experts that such nontraditional weapons in the hands of fringe organizations could exact a high toll. US legislation that passed the following year authorized DOE to establish the Chemical and Biological Nonproliferation program, and Sandia was tasked with developing detection and decontamination technologies. One result of this early drive was the MicroChemLab, a handheld detection device for sampling air, water, and surfaces. Another was the now-famous Sandia Decon Foam, which was used to decontaminate a large number of the buildings in Washington that had been contaminated with anthrax. 

“Even as the buildings were being evacuated in Washington, we were asked how quickly we could get people on the ground to oversee the decontamination of contaminated facilities,” Duane says.

Also in the late 1990s, Sandia conducted the Defense of Cities study on behalf of DOE and DoD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The study established a framework for evaluating and utilizing detection technologies to protect large urban areas in the event of a biological attack. Based in part on that analysis, the government decided to immediately deploy the BASIS system – a biodetection system under development at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories – in the Washington, D.C., area. In the following months, national efforts to define and evaluate urban bio warning and response systems intensified. With DTRA funding, Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos established the Albuquerque Test Bed. Environmental sensors and medical monitoring systems were deployed throughout the city to evaluate operational issues connected to such systems.

At the same time, Sandia was asked by the Executive Office of the President to evaluate other proposed biodetection systems for potential national deployment. That work helped define what has become BioWatch, which is now deployed in more than 30 cities nationwide. Today, Sandia operates the BioWatch Indoor Reachback Center and is charged with responding 24/7 should there be a positive from those parts of the system that are deployed in key facilities around the nation. Sandia also is responsible for defining technical requirements and standards for new generations of the BioWatch equipment and for developing the Concepts of Operations (ConOPs) for responding to a positive detection event.

The emergency use of the Sandia Decon Foam also prompted similar long-term projects that required developing a systems-level solution to decontamination and restoration. “We had a specific technology that was very, very effective. We knew that,” Duane says. “It was when we actually took it into the field, when we took it to Washington to start decontaminating facilities that suddenly we saw the whole system problem.

 “We had to rethink what we needed to do,” Duane says. “You have to know where the contamination is, you have to do an assessment. Then you decontaminate. Following decontamination, you have to go back in and do clearance sampling. You have to ensure the decontamination activity has been effective, that the place is now safe to occupy. So the technology was very important, it was critical, but ultimately it was insufficient.”

The realization of all the factors that decontamination and restoration entails has turned into a number of multiyear, systems-level projects that brought together teams of professionals from a variety of disciplines to develop and demonstrate scenarios. The most recent program to be completed, the Interagency Biological Restoration Demonstration (IBRD), wrapped up in December but is serving as a precursor to other, more expansive projects just getting under way.

Going global

For Ren, the anthrax letters cemented multiple projects, which he had proposed several times over the prior year but failed to get backing. They have since led to Sandia’s global activities in biological threat reduction. Within weeks of the anthrax letters, biologists and physical security experts were tasked to assess and secure all of the USDA’s biosafety level three (BSL3) infectious disease research laboratories by that December.

 “We were road warriors — traveling constantly,” Ren says. Over the following two years, the Sandians then secured another dozen or so US bioscience labs operated by different agencies.

The work stemmed from a conference Sandia staged in 2000 for both Russian and US laboratories on biosecurity. It was a project Ren got under way upon his arrival at Sandia the prior year, when he was tasked to figure out what role Sandia could play in the area of biological threats. It was an interest Ren had developed while working for the United Nations. Seeing Sandia’s long history in physical security, developed around securing nuclear weapons, Ren targeted bioscience laboratory security.

 “I was making the rounds, but didn’t get any attention outside the immediate circle of laboratory specialists,” Ren says. But when the 9/11 attacks occurred and Washington needed an expert, the call went out to Sandia. “Because I had thought about it, we became the experts.”

In the process of securing US laboratories, Ren and his team began developing a methodology for laboratory safeguards and security.  The USDA contracted Sandia to write an early version of what Ren and manager Jennifer Gaudioso (6822) later published as the “Laboratory Biosecurity Handbook,” which has become the industry standard.

 “We had requests to do a lot more laboratories, but instead of securing individual facilities, we focused on creating a methodology that other labs could use,” Ren says. “Once we decided the US was in pretty good shape, we realized the same vigilance and knowledge were lacking internationally and we turned our attention overseas.”

The international contingent of what is now known as Sandia’s Countering Biological Threats programs, the International Biological Threat Reduction program, is now active in more than 40 countries worldwide, securing laboratories, training laboratory and public health professionals, and developing innovative programs to promote the safe and responsible use of dual-use technologies, materials, and expertise.

Biosciences took shape

In the late 1990s, as the work in detection and decontamination got under way, Mim John, at one time the California site VP who is now retired, asked her managers to examine how Sandia could contribute in the area of biological threats. Director Len Napolitano (8900) took that on, leading a small committee that researched the space and developed recommendations for Sandia’s role.

In 1999, Sandia’s executive leadership gave the go-ahead to expand Sandia’s bio programs. To seed the new specialties, areas of biosciences around biodefense were targeted for a succession of Laboratory-Directed Research and Development Grand Challenges that continue today. 

 “This was the first area of fundamental science that did not have a tie back directly to our nuclear mission, but Sandia was transitioning from a nuclear lab to a national security lab,” Len says. “It helped build competencies for other national security problems we should be addressing. This was a new class of threat. We were looking for bigger tanks or faster planes and they were mailing little envelopes.”

In the years that followed, Sandia specialists, tasked by the FBI, determined the form of bacillus anthracis contained in those letters was not a weaponized form. According to a press release Sandia issued in 2008 about the research, which was conducted from 2002-2008, “the possibility of a weaponized form was of great concern to investigators. This information was crucial in ruling out state-sponsored terrorism.” 

Still, the letters, especially coming so soon after the 9/11 attacks, were a flashpoint for researchers and for funding agencies. Sandians began to put together more projects, and were able to secure funding to help solidify the Labs’ foundation in bioscience.

21st century technology

Sandia’s biological-related programs, which are part of the International, Homeland, and Nuclear Security Strategic Management Unit (IHNS SMU), now comprise the international and diagnostic areas but also delve into the fundamental biological and chemical processes of both pathogens and human hosts to identify and develop treatments, forensic frameworks, and other countermeasures, including presymptomatic diagnostic profiles and devices. Sandia also has an extensive biofuels program in the Energy, Climate, and Infrastructure SMU. 

 “If we were to be a broad-based national security lab, able to help the US respond to all sorts of unusual threats, then we needed to consider biology and the anthrax letters served to amplify the need for biological expertise,” says John Vitko, who was then-director of 8100 and is now retired.

John was placed at the helm of Sandia’s fledgling biodefense programs. He then was tapped to help draft the blueprint for the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate when that organization was established. He then went on assignment to DHS (under an Interagency Personnel Assignment) to head their Chemical and Biological Defense Directorate. 

 “The 21st century belongs to biology,” John says. “And if you’re going to be a 21st century laboratory, you need to be well-versed in the technologies that drive the issues.”