BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Hoping to discourage would-be bioterrorists, a global organization of nearly 500 germ banks removed some details on anthrax from its Internet database and added information on controls for dangerous agents.
The recent steps were also intended to help members of the World Federation for Culture Collections counter misperceptions about access to lethal germs at research labs, officials said Tuesday.
"It's very difficult to get dangerous products from collections," insisted WFFC president Jean Swings, a professor at Ghent University.
Swings and other scientists also pointed out that dangerous agents did not have to be swiped from labs at all.
"All you need is a handful of soil and the right equipment and know-how and you can isolate anthrax spores," said WFCC executive board secretary David Smith. "How do you control that?"
The federation, with 472 members in 62 countries, posted a statement on biological warfare on its Web page a few days ago emphasizing that access to dangerous organisms is strictly regulated by national and international laws.
"What we want to do is ... to remind members that these things are in place and also, if there's someone who's looking for such organisms, remind them that these controls are in place as well," said Smith, who works at the CABI Bioscience UK Centre in Egham, England.
At a meeting of European federation members last week, some suggested dropping "bacillus anthracis" from the WFCC database entirely.
Instead it was decided to remove only the bacteria strain numbers, he said. Anyone seeking more information would have to go to the specific national collection holding the bacteria to get it.
"It doesn't really do much more than draw attention to people who are looking for these organisms," Smith said. "Even before this was done, there's no way someone could come on to the Web site, ask for a strain and get it delivered."
Only about 12 to 20 of the WFCC members actually stock what are referred to as "select agents," bacteria such as anthrax, plague and brucella that can be used in biological warfare, Smith said.
Those stocks are controlled by governments under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, with requirements for licensing, end user certificates, traceability and export controls, he said.
The WFCC issued guidelines for tighter controls in the mid-1980s, but it has no policing powers. "That's the job of individual governments," Smith said.
And there are still cases where they fail.
In 1995, alleged white supremacist Larry Wayne Harris was arrested in Ohio with three vials of bubonic plague toxins he had ordered fraudulently by mail from a biological supply house in Maryland.
In other cases, supplies were shared decades ago with labs in countries that are no longer considered friendly, such as Iraq.
"When regimes change there's always a possibility that things can go wrong," Smith said.
The WFCC represents only those labs and germ banks that voluntarily sign up to share information. There is no requirement to join.
Hundreds more banks and labs exist in places like hospitals and businesses, scientists say, although very few would stock the most dangerous bacteria.
Referring to the spate of anthrax cases in the United States, Smith said it was impossible to guess whether the spores came from a lab or had been isolated from nature.
On the Net:
World Federation for Culture Collections database, http://wdcm.nig.ac.jp