Shinrikyo, the Japanese doomsday sect that
killed 12 people by releasing sarin nerve gas
into the Tokyo subway in 1995, had the knowledge
and skills to wreak even greater devastation with
New research in the US shows that Aum not only
had the ability to release anthrax, it even did
so-though it used a non-virulent strain.
The sect cultured the bacteria in large drums
of liquid in the basement of its eight-storey
headquarters in the Tokyo suburb of Kameido, says
Hiroshi Takahashi of Japan's National Institute
of Infectious Diseases. Then, in July 1993, Aum
members pumped the liquid to the roof and sprayed
it into the air for 24 hours
The police investigated when neighbours complained
about the smell, but Japan's religious protection
laws prevented them from searching the building.
But they did manage to take samples of a fluid
leaking from a pipe on the outside of the building.
Medical records show that no one reported any
anthrax symptoms in the area after the spraying,
Takahashi told an anthrax conference in Annapolis,
Maryland, in June. The fact that Aum was unable
to infect people with anthrax is cited by many
terrorism experts as evidence that bioweapons
are too complex for such extremists.
But now scientists at Northern Arizona University
in Flagstaff have analysed the fluid sample and
found it contains plenty of healthy anthrax bacilli.
DNA analysis shows they belong to the Sterne strain,
which is used in live anthrax vaccines for animals.
Sterne anthrax lacks a fragment of DNA necessary
for the bacteria to cause disease, and is easily
purchased in the vaccine form. "It wouldn't
have made anyone sick," says Kimothy Smith,
a member of the team.
Why would terrorists spray harmless bacteria?
They may have been practising, says Smith. Police
attention could have discouraged them from moving
on to virulent bacteria. Worryingly, the results
show that Aum had got around the main difficulties
with bioweapons-dead cultures and inadequate spraying.
"I have no doubt people would have been sick,
and probably died, if they had used a virulent
strain," says Smith.