Attack of the Anthrax 'Virus'

Americans are getting a crash course in microbiology. The delivery of anthrax spores with the daily mail took the U.S. populace completely by surprise. But anyone who has read Ken Alibek's Biohazard, an account of bioweaponry in the former Soviet Union,1 or Richard Preston's fictional The Cobra Event,2 or followed periodic updates on bioterrorism here in The Scientist or in other journals, could have predicted an attempt to subvert biology into weaponry in the wake of Sept. 11. The government k

Ricki Lewis
Nov 11, 2001
Americans are getting a crash course in microbiology. The delivery of anthrax spores with the daily mail took the U.S. populace completely by surprise. But anyone who has read Ken Alibek's Biohazard, an account of bioweaponry in the former Soviet Union,1 or Richard Preston's fictional The Cobra Event,2 or followed periodic updates on bioterrorism here in The Scientist or in other journals, could have predicted an attempt to subvert biology into weaponry in the wake of Sept. 11.

The government knew of the danger too. On Sept. 5, Donald A. Henderson, director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told Congress "biological weapons are a significant threat." But once again, mainstream media are jumping on a life science story as if it sprung from the proverbial ether, much as it did for cloning in 1996 and stem cells in 1998.

While the press and public, not to mention various government officials, struggle to distinguish bacteria from viruses, antibiotics from antibodies, and viruses from vaccines, an underlying message is emerging: As a nation, our science illiteracy has gone from mere embarrassment to a life-threatening problem.

'What the Heck is Anthrax, Anyway?'

In the days following the first cases, poor Bacillus anthracis suffered a major identity crisis. Initially dubbed "a dangerous chemical," the pathogen was soon designated "the anthrax virus" by a government spokesperson whose error was picked up and parroted by many in the media. CNN still does it.

Alas, the U.S postal service's taxonomic designation of anthrax as "poison in the mail" was still the stuff of headlines in early November, conjuring up images of Snow White biting into an apple laced with bacterial spores.

Moving up the evolutionary ladder, a London tabloid vividly described "fungal spores of anthrax." Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson suggested that the first anthrax victim was infected by drinking stream water, perhaps imagining an inland red tide of sorts. But the favorite gaff to biologists nationwide, sending many into gales of uncontrollable laughter, is footage of a waltzing alga and a paramecium used to illustrate anthrax stories. It has led to some classroom confusion. "One of the Boston TV stations runs the same film clip every time they talk about bioterrorism organisms-of Paramecium and Volvox rolling along! They started doing this in September, just after we had done the lab using both of these organisms. Several of my students, after seeing the news, remarked that we shouldn't be using such dangerous organisms in intro microbiology!" relates Leslie Lichtenstein, a professor of biology at Massasoit Community College in Brockton, Mass. Visions of Anton von Leewenhoek peering with his crude lens at a human sperm, believing it to be a microbe, dance in my head.

Even those in the media who managed to learn that the culprit is a bacterium seemed more often than not to be unfamiliar with that term, repeatedly referring to "a bacteria." I learned from one Web site (www.howstuffworks.com), for example, that "anthrax is not a virus and so it can't be passed on to others." Anthrax is, writes the expert, "a bacteria." I sent a response asking whether she'd ever had a strep throat. Perhaps the easiest approach is to do what most in the media seem to do-forget biology and call the organism simply a germ or bug.

I decided to take matters into my own hands when my favorite deejay referred to the anthrax virus for the umpteenth time, and talked about people developing a tolerance for antibiotics. He implored, "What the heck is anthrax, anyway. Can anyone tell me?" So I called. A self-professed idiot who specializes in playing sounds of people throwing up, deejay Pete had the guts to admit that he thought viruses and bacteria were one and the same. When I explained the difference, he asked, "What's a cell?" He came back on the air, jokingly urging listeners to hoard Cipro to fight the killer virus and then reporting on a Hollywood actress upset because she couldn't find a gas mask to fit her poodle.

I can understand why the general public might confuse bacterium and virus. Nearly every biology textbook lumps viruses in with bacteria, and sometimes even with the much more complex protists (such as the dancing Paramecium and Volvox)-a classification seemingly based on the concept of "size matters." In my biology textbook, Life, viruses get their own chapter.

Antibiotic Resistance and the 'E' Word

I may have lost out in the education of deejay Pete, but I've heard from several biology instructors who are having better luck using the current crisis to educate their students.

Those of us who teach biology have long trotted out the unbeatably compelling example of antibiotic resistance to illustrate evolution. Microevolution is a change in gene frequency in a population over time-precisely what happens when a drug kills off susceptible bacterial cells, leaving naturally resistant variants to multiply. Creationist rhetoric to the contrary, this is evolution in action, on the part of the bacterial gene pool-perhaps unfathomable to a public that regards such an organism as an amorphous bug or germ.

Instructors are shocked at the apparent ignorance of their audiences. "I asked students about the evolution of drug resistance the other day and found that they were very confused. Most got it confused with the immune response of humans to bacteria, not understanding that it is a change in the bacteria in response to the antibiotic. And none knew that it is an example of evolution by natural selection, one that is happening every day. In addition, virtually none of the news coverage I have read or heard mentions that bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a product of evolutionary change," says Richard Miller, a professor of biological sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis. Others report, however, that the New York Times and National Public Radio have accurately presented the evolutionary angle.

Jennifer T. Thomas, an assistant professor of biology at Belmont University in Nashville, routinely gives her non-majors students a questionnaire to assess their knowledge of antibiotics. The results are frightening. "More than half of the students-120 so far-think that antibiotics can kill whatever ails you º bacteria, viruses, 'bugs', etc. Not one student has ever made the distinction of just bacteria being affected. They have no concept that antibiotics stop the division of bacteria and feel that they can be used preventatively." Like Miller's students, about a third of Thomas's think that antibiotics somehow help the human immune system, "much like a vaccine. Of course, when asked how a vaccine works, they are stumped. Many think that a person becomes resistant to the efficacy of antibiotics because their immune system does not respond to them any more," Thomas notes. Most of her students report having gotten prescriptions for antibiotics over the phone, and stopping taking them when they felt better-pervasive public health problems.

Scientists Must Help

The unofficial draft of the Health Aspects of Biological and Chemical Weapons report from the World Health Organization states, "Due to the potential for widespread fear and panic following a biological incident, clear and accurate communication of the risks to the public is paramount." (www.who.int/emc/pdfs/ BIOWEAPONS_FULL_TEXT2.pdf) Although the report refers specifically to clouds of aerosolized agent, and not booby-trapped letters, the message to the media is the same: get it right, and tell people in time for the information to be useful. Barry R. Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, recently called the most glaring failure in the current bioterrorism situation communication.

One could argue, for example, that the early depiction of cutaneous anthrax as "little to worry about" compared to the deadly inhalation variety led many to believe that these were two entirely different infections, when the causative agent is the same. Yet now the tables have turned toward panic. "All the TV coverage on Cipro is convincing the public that they need a "gorillacillin" instead of a less exotic drug that would be equally effective. And they provide no information on what indiscriminate use of antibiotics can lead to," Lichtenstein says.

It is the possible long-term consequence of inappropriate antibiotic use that the media has taken a long time to grasp, perhaps because journalism school programs do not cover plasmids that ferry multiple drug resistance genes among bacterial types, and life scientists aren't eager to volunteer this information. But we should.

The average person does not view his or her body as a community of diverse microorganisms, and therefore cannot imagine that taking these drugs can select resistant strains of pathogens other than anthrax. Warning the public now can help to prevent a multipronged public health crisis tomorrow.

Ricki Lewis is a contributing editor for The Scientist and author or co-author of several life science textbooks published by McGraw-Hill Higher Education. She has a PhD in genetics.
References
1. K. Alibek, S. Handelman, Biohazard, New York: Dell Publishing, 1999.

2. R. Preston, The Cobra Event. New York: Random House, 1997.