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Wash U: research against bioterrorism progressing, ten years after 9/11

U.S. Navy personnel take samples from a mock anthrax pile during a Chemical, Biological, Radiological (CBR) decontamination drill aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf in 2007.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Kyle Steckler)
U.S. Navy personnel take samples from a mock anthrax pile during a Chemical, Biological, Radiological (CBR) decontamination drill aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf in 2007.

Soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, letters laced with anthrax started appearing in the U.S. mail, killing five people and sickening 17 others.

The incidents triggered a surge in research dedicated to preventing future bioterrorism attacks.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra spoke with Washington University virologist David Wang about his research on emerging infectious diseases, and how his work is helping to combat bioterrorism.


WANG: "After 9/11, Congress and NIH decided that they needed to increase funding for specifically preparedness against bioterrorism. So there’s a list now that the government puts out of potential bio-terror agents – they’re called select agents.

So of course these are things like anthrax which was what was actually used in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, and other bacteria and viruses that could be distributed or spread effectively. And they’re now regulations about which laboratories can actually do research on these, one has to be registered with the government and so forth."


LACAPRA: What’s happening here in the Midwest to help in this effort against bioterrorism agents?

WANG: "Here in the Midwest there is one of the ten NIH-funded Regional Centers of Excellence, and these are aimed to be foci of research along specific themes to try to help improve our preparedness against bioterrorism.

In the Midwest, Wash U is the leader of one of these centers, and a lot of ongoing research here is focused on trying to do one of two things. One is to better understand our natural immune responses to viral and bacterial infections, with the idea that if we understand better how the body can combat these agents, then we can utilize that information to develop better vaccines or better therapeutics.

A second strategy or approach that my lab is involved in is trying to identify all the unknown viruses that are out there, that might be causing new outbreaks, or what are called new emerging diseases."


LACAPRA: Can you give me an example of one of the things that your lab has worked on?

WANG: "Yeah, so my lab works on developing better technologies to identify unknown agents. And as an example of what we’ve been able to do, many years ago during the SARS outbreak in 2003, we were able to help the CDC identify SARS as a novel corona virus, which is a specific type of virus.

More recently along those lines we’ve looked at a very small outbreak, in a small daycare center of gastroenteritis, so diarrhea and vomiting. And again we used our methods to identify a brand new virus that we think is a candidate that might play a role now in causing outbreaks of diarrhea and vomiting."


LACAPRA: How does doing this research on more common ailments relate to trying to find ways to protect ourselves against bioterrorism?

WANG: "Right. So people don’t think of something that causes acute diarrhea as necessarily a great bioterrorism agent.

But the reason that that’s applicable or relevant is that when we have developed these methods and can actually apply them in real-life settings to small outbreaks like this, then we have the tools to be able to respond if there is a larger-scale outbreak where someone suspects that maybe an unknown biowarfare agent has been released, that the same kinds of methods can applied to rapidly identify what is there.

And then with that information you can then design the proper responses, whether it’s administering vaccines, distributing antibiotics, and so forth."


LACAPRA: How far have we come since 9/11? Are we making any progress?

WANG: "I’m sure we’re making progress. The question is really, is the progress enough. And I think that one challenge is that research is inherently slow.

And so the very tangible product we’re getting out is increased knowledge, and converting that knowledge into actual, very practical tools takes some time.

In terms of preparedness in identifying agents specifically, which is the area that we’re in and that many other researchers work on, I think we definitely are in a much better position now than we were just ten years ago. And I think a lot of that has to do with opportunities and funding resources that have become available because of the 9/11 events."