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August 6, 1997

Pentagon-Funded Research Takes Aim at Agents of Biological Warfare

JAMA. 1997;278(5):373-375. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03550050033009

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LAST spring, mail-room workers at the Washington, DC, headquarters of the B'nai B'rith Jewish service organization discovered a leaking package. The contents: a broken petri dish, its label indicating that it harbored deadly anthrax bacteria.

In the wake of this discovery, more than 100 employees were quarantined in their offices for about 9 hours. Several city blocks were sealed off, while authorities and emergency personnel evaluated the situation. Some workers exposed to the unknown agent underwent an emergency decontamination process that involved stripping to their underwear in public to be sprayed with a bleach-and-water solution.

Some hours later, however, tests revealed that the incident was a hoax: The petri dish contained only common bacteria that posed no threat. But the affair and other recent events have underscored a growing sense of vulnerability to attacks by terrorists or rogue nations wielding biological weapons rather than bombs.

An Increasing Threat  After the