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NAU professor featured in Netflix documentary on anthrax attacks

Josh Biggs/NAU

A new Netflix documentary tells the story of the letters laced with anthrax that were sent through the U.S. mail just after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The anthrax letters ultimately killed five Americans. The film features Northern Arizona University professor Paul Keim, whose research revealed the anthrax wasn’t part of a foreign terrorist plot but sourced from an American laboratory. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Keim about the role of science in the high-profile case.

What was your reaction when Netflix approached you about wanting to make this film?

No problem, I’ve done a hundred of these in the last 20 years, literally a hundred…. I was really pleased overall with it, plus I got more camera time than I normally get on these things, and plus I thought they told the story very well.

Take me back to 2001 when the FBI called you saying they needed your expertise on anthrax. What was that like for you?

It was like all the blood left my body, you know? This all happened in the shadow of 9/11, like the title of the film says. I think the entire world was shell shocked at that point, including us… I got the call from an FBI scientist, we talked through it, then he called back and left a voice message saying the sample is on the jet and it’s going to be in Flagstaff in a couple of hours. It was like, whoa, this is for real now…. But then of course more letters went out. The jets just kept flying into Flagstaff with more and more samples, and so we were pretty much 24/7 for a few months there.

And just quickly, what you were doing was taking these samples from the letters that the FBI provided to you, and using DNA technology to figure out—to compare them to a database and try to figure out where they were coming from.

Exactly, and continue to generate a larger and larger database, at the same time we’re analyzing material from the letters.

Just to add to – obviously this was an incredibly intense time for you and your laboratory, but also the scientists who were the experts helping the FBI ended up being the suspects as well.

Yeah that was—I’d been working on anthrax in biodefense for the U.S. government for about 5-6 years before the anthrax letters went out.… And we’d do these war games, so what would we do if a terrorist event happened? We’d be given a scenario and we’d go through all the things we’d want to do to try to figure out what was going on. I can’t ever remember having a part of those scenarios the idea that there might be a scientist or one of us on the investigation team that sent it out.

That must have been frightening. I remember you saying in the film at one point, the FBI sat you down and said ‘we’re not going to arrest you’ and you were like, ‘I didn’t know that was a possibility!’

That’s right… I made some joke about how I greased my wrists so I could slide out of the handcuffs, and there was a very tense chuckle in the room. Not too many people found that funny, I guess.

Looking back what do you most remember about that time? I was wondering as I watched the film, is this something that you like to look back on as this period in your life when you did this amazing work that was incredibly important, or is something that you are relieved that it’s over?

I’m very proud of what we did then, and what the NAU team did… I use it as an example of why you have to broadly support science across the community, because how do you anticipate where this expertise that’s really important is going to develop?... We ended up being able to do something nobody had ever done, which was identify a strain of anthrax.

Paul Keim, thank you speaking with me.

You’re very welcome, Melissa.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.