Biocrime: spikes, syringes and microbes

Table of contents:

Biocrime: spikes, syringes and microbes
Biocrime: spikes, syringes and microbes

Spikes, Syringes and Microbes

There they are: the doctor who injects his former lover with an HIV-positive blood sample. Or the laboratory assistant who offers her employees muffins - "garnished" with diarrhea pathogens. Biocrime poses new challenges for physicians and microbiologists.


When twelve lab workers at St. Paul Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, fell ill after eating blueberry muffins in October 1996, Diane Thompson was immediately suspected. The 25-year-old worked in the same laboratory at the hospital and had access to bacteria that cause severe diarrheal diseases: Shigella dysenteriae. Events in the laboratory assistant's recent past made the police investigators prick up their ears. A year earlier, Diane Thompson's former boyfriend had been hospitalized multiple times for severe diarrhea. As it turned out later, the lab assistant had deliberately served contaminated drinks or pasta dishes to the man who wanted to break off his relationship with her. After the police investigation, the young woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Texas court in August 1997.

Crimes in which a pathogen or a toxin is used to harm people instead of the classic murder weapon are fortunately very rare. Georg Pauli, head of the Center for Biological Safety at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, has not seen a single such case in Germany in recent years. "Only a few cases have become known worldwide in recent years," says the Berlin virologist. And in the statistics of the Federal Criminal Police Office, there were fortunately no real cases of biocrime, apart from isolated incidents in which threats were made with pathogens.

Bond says hello

In the USA, on the other hand, people are sensitized after the anthrax attacks of 2001. "Only a few cases have been reported worldwide in recent years"

(Georg Pauli) According to a study by W. Seth Carus from the National Defense University in Washington, there have been 180 documented crimes in which biological agents have been used illegally worldwide since 1900. 27 of these crimes had a terrorist background, 66 were committed by individuals with personal motives. According to Carus statistics (updated February 2001), more biological crimes have been recorded worldwide in recent years than in previous years. From 1980 to 1989 there were only nine, between 1990 and 1999 153 such crimes were documented.

Some of these crimes attracted a lot of public attention. For example, the case of the Bulgarian Georgi Markov, who was suddenly stabbed in the thigh at a bus stop in London in September 1978 by a stranger with the tip of an umbrella. Four days later, the Bulgarian exile died in a London hospital, poisoned with ricin injected into his body by the unknown.

In the context of the "Biodefence" program in the USA, a fairly young scientific discipline is being heavily funded in order to obtain evidence that can be used in court for the illegal use of biological agents: forensic microbiology. The classic methods for identifying microorganisms or toxins are used, such as sequencing, cultivation in cell cultures, biochemistry, electron microscopy or mass spectroscopy.

New task for doctors: securing evidence

These tests require the same materials that a doctor would otherwise use to diagnose a disease. "However, the analyzes go far beyond what is otherwise required for medical diagnoses or epidemiological investigations," says Steven Schutzer, a physician and scientist at the New Jersey Medical School in the USA. The material must be examined very quickly and the samples must be stabilized and stored in such a way that they can also be accessed later.

The analyzes go far beyond what is otherwise required for medical diagnosis or epidemiological investigations

(Steven Schutzer) In addition, forensic microbiology must also be made familiar to doctors who treat potential victims. "Physicians, in particular, need to be aware that patients can be victims of a crime committed with a bioweapon," he explains. If there is a suspicion, the patient must be helped on the one hand, but evidence must also be secured on the other. Doctors are in a key position here. He demands that they be equipped with forensic kits similar to those used in sex crimes, which serve to effectively obtain evidence.

Schutzer also advises doctors, as soon as there is a suspicion Doctors in particular need to be aware that patients can be victims of a crime committed with a bioweapon"

(Steven Schutzer) to inform the competent authorities of the unauthorized use of a biological agent and not only after confirmation by the testing laboratory. In addition, the attending physicians must insist that the sample material is retained and that potential evidence does not end up in the lab's trash can.


The case of gastroenterologist Richard Schmidt in Louisiana, who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for intentionally injecting his former lover Janice Trahan with a patient's blood contaminated with HIV in 1994, shows how important it is to collect evidence carefully and quickly had injected. The woman became infected with the dangerous virus through this attack.

In the suspect's doctor's office, investigators found a vial of blood contaminated with HIV. The challenge for forensic microbiology was to prove that the viruses in the suspicious sample matched those in the blood of the sick Janice Trahan. Speed was needed because the genome of RNA viruses changes rapidly. However, genetic testing clearly revealed that the viral RNA in the victim's blood matched the HIV variants found at the suspect's office more closely than virus isolates from other patients in the area. Because Janice Trahan was a confirmed HIV negative prior to the incident, the gastroenterologist who gave his girlfriend the shot claiming it was a vitamin B-12 injection could be convicted.

Popular topic