Japanese sect was close to bioterrorism, journal says

Live anthrax found at office

Miami Herald/August 30, 2001

Paris -- Aum Supreme Truth, the Japanese doomsday sect that carried out a nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, made a trial run of an anthrax weapon, using harmless vaccine bacteria as a test, New Scientist says.

What has been dismissed as a botched attempt to carry out an anthrax attack may have been a dress rehearsal for the real thing, it says in a report due to be published on Saturday.

Hiroshi Takahashi, a scientist at Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases, told an anthrax conference in Maryland in June that the sect cultured the bacteria in large drums of liquid in the basement of its headquarters outside Tokyo, the report says.

Then, in July 1993, sect members pumped the liquid to the roof and sprayed it in the air for 24 hours.

Takahashi said police investigated when neighbors complained about the smell, but they were unable under Japan's religious protection laws to enter and search the building. However, they did manage to take samples of a fluid leaking from a pipe on the outside of the building.

No one in the neighborhood fell sick. Because of this, when light was eventually shed on Aum's experiments with biological weapons, the operation was seen as a failed attempt to create anthrax.

But, New Scientist says, new evidence suggests Aum was farther down the road to anthrax terrorism than previously thought. A laboratory at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff has now analyzed the fluid sample taken by the police, and found it to be full of live, healthy anthrax bacteria.

DNA analysis shows that the bacteria belong to the Sterne strain, which is used in live vaccine for animals, the report says. Sterne anthrax is designed to lack a fragment of DNA that enables the bacteria to become toxic, and is thus harmless.

Aum carried out the spraying in a practice run but may have been discouraged from carrying out a real attack because of police attention, an Arizona researcher suggested.

The results of the tests show the sect had already overcome the biggest hurdles with bioweapons -- keeping cultures alive, manufacturing enough of the bacteria and spraying in sufficient volumes to cause mass death.

Aum released the nerve gas sarin in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto, killing four people, in June 1994.

It carried out a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995, killing 12 and injuring about 5,000 others.

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