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Profile: Jacques Ravel
Jacques Ravel was a participant or observer in the following events:
Jacques Ravel. [Source: New York Times / Brendan Smialowsk]In 2002, scientists mapped the anthrax genome in an attempt to generate new leads for the anthrax attacks investigation. Initially, the results are disappointing because the anthrax used in the letters, which is from the Ames strain, do not seem to differ in any way from the original Ames strain used in many laboratories (see Early-Late 2002). But around early 2003, an unnamed US Army microbiologist at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, makes a breakthrough. He discovers a morph (also known as a morphotype) that allows scientists to detect differences between the genetic structure of the anthrax used in the attacks and other anthrax. Jacques Ravel, a leading member of the scientific team at the The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) that is decoding the anthrax genome, is asked to decode more morphs. After two years, the team is able to decode a total of eight morphs. The head of TIGR will later comment that it was not clear why the FBI did not ask other laboratories to share the task and speed up the process. Other scientists working with the FBI select four of the morphs as having the most reliable unique genetic differences, known as indels. All of the anthrax letters used anthrax containing these four indels. The FBI finally has a unique signature for the anthrax used in the attacks and starts looking for laboratories that have used an exact match. [New York Times, 8/20/2008] Apparently, by early 2004 scientists already know enough to notice a discrepancy with a sample scientist Bruce Ivins has submitted to the investigation, and the FBI raids Ivins’s lab in July 2004 to seize more samples from him (see Early 2004 and July 16, 2004).
Vahid Majidi. [Source: FBI]In the face of continued widespread doubt about the government’s case against deceased anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins (see August 12, 2008), the FBI holds a press conference presenting more of its scientific evidence against Ivins. A panel discussion of experts working with the FBI is headed by Dr. Vahid Majidi, the FBI’s assistant director for the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, and Dr. Chris Hassell, who heads the FBI’s laboratory. The others on the panel are Paul Keim, Dr. James Burans, Dr. Rita Colwell, Claire Fraser-Liggett, Jacques Ravel, and Dr. Joseph Michael. They are all scientists who assisted with the FBI investigation.
Majidi says, “[T]here were no additional additives combined with the [anthrax] to make them any more dispersible.” He adds, “The material we have is pure spores.”
Hassell says that over 60 scientists worked with the anthrax investigation, validating the data throughout the process. He also says that more than ten peer reviewed scientific articles will be published in the coming months about the science behind the investigation’s findings.
Michael explains that initial results showed that the anthrax spores contained silicon and oxygen. This led to erroneous conclusions that the anthrax had been weaponized with additives to make it more deadly. Later, more powerful microscope analysis showed that the silicon and oxygen were within the anthrax spores and not a layer outside the spores, indicating the anthrax was not weaponized.
Burans says the silicon and oxygen were natural occurrences in the spores and they would not have made the anthrax deadlier since they were not on the outside of the spores.
Asked if the silicon and oxygen could have been intentionally put in the anthrax by a person, an unnamed official replies, “The understanding of that process is not well understood.”
Majidi says scientists were unable to determine what equipment was used to turn wet anthrax into the dry powder used in the attacks.
Burans says that one reason why there was so much confusion about the weaponization of the anthrax is because so little is known about dry anthrax. Nearly all experimentation on anthrax is done using wet anthrax, because it is much safer to handle. He says: “to this day in our laboratories, we avoid at all costs working with [anthrax] in dried form. There’s no reason to.”
Majidi says scientists were able to make anthrax resembling the anthrax used in the attacks, and the anthrax they made behaved in the same way. However, they were not able to recreate the presence of silicon inside the spores. He says, “It would have been easy to make these samples at USAMRIID.” Burans adds that one person could make the amount of anthrax used in the letters in three to seven days. [US Department of Justice, 8/18/2008]
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