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Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — Two germ banks tucked away in the smog and sprawl of the hemisphere’s largest city stock dozens of petri dishes filled with anthrax, the bacteria that have sparked a worldwide panic.

But there are no armed guards, no security cameras and no health officials tottering about in protective suits. In fact, these labs in Mexico City sell, swap or even give away the potentially deadly microbe to those with scientific credentials.

Scientists estimate that germ banks from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, Paris to Perth, keep dozens of strains of Bacillus anthracis, the germ that causes anthrax, and millions of other potentially deadly bacteria on hand for research purposes. Prices vary from country to country.

Visits to several germ centers around the world found that hazardous spores are often shipped out in hard plastic travel vials to researchers or hospitals looking to check a diagnosis.

When the Persian Gulf War brought fears of biological weapons pumping germ-laced gas into the Iraqi deserts where American forces were stationed, the United States began limiting who could receive hazardous microorganisms from its germ centers.

Since 1997, it has been illegal for laboratories to ship any deadly microbes to destinations in or outside the United States without permission from the Justice Department.

Regulations in many places outside the United States are looser.

"There are suggested guidelines for the way the germ banks of the world should behave," said Fernando Montiel, coordinator of biochemistry at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. "But it is left up to each individual country to enforce these rules. Some countries are more strict than others."

In Mexico, the issue is complicated by the fact that the country has an especially high concentration of potent anthrax spores in its soil. Since 1991, more than 110 people have died from the disease contracted in the Mexican countryside or from infected livestock, according to Hector Villalva, head of the microbiology department at the National School of Biological Sciences, one of Mexico’s two germ banks.

"How is it worth it to take extra security measures at laboratories when you can find the same anthrax in nature?" Villalva asked. "The labs are not the problem."

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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