Potent Grade of Anthrax Found in Daschle Letter, 29 Exposed
The anthrax contained in a letter mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was of a "high-grade," suggesting that "someone, somewhere has access to the sort of germ weapons capable of inflicting huge casualties," the New York Times reports. Until yesterday's preliminary analysis on the letter, many experts had assumed that the anthrax discovered in Washington, D.C., New York and Florida was "crudely made." The discovery of the potent form of anthrax marks the "first time in history that such a sophisticated form of anthrax had been used as a weapon in warfare or bioterrorism," the Times reports (Engelberg/Miller, New York Times, 10/17). This morning, CNN reported that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said that the Capitol and surrounding areas will be closed through next Monday for a "complete security and environmental sweep." According to Hastert, an anthrax spore was found in the ventilation system in the Senate office buildings, and one of his own offices is currently "under quarentine" because a "suspicious package" was found there. Hastert said that it is "appropriate and prudent" for House members to take a recess after completing business today. Testifying on Capitol Hill, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said that although 29 of Senator Thomas Daschle's (D-S.D.) staff members were exposed to anthrax, it is "too early" to tell if they are infected with the disease (CNN, 10/17).
Preliminary tests indicate that the anthrax in the Daschle letter had been refined "enough that it could easily be dispersed through the air" (Baltimore Sun, 10/17). Such a form of anthrax is "the kind that will give you pulmonary" or inhalation anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease, a senior government official said (Johnston/Mitchell, New York Times, 10/17). Bob Stevens, a employee of Boca Raton, Fla.-based American Media Inc., died from inhalation anthrax earlier this month (American Health Line, 10/16). Daschle said, "We were told that it was a very potent form of anthrax that clearly was produced by somebody who knew what he or she was doing. This particular sample had a fairly significant degree of concentration of spores" (Burger/Kennedy, New York Daily News, 10/17). The Daschle aide "limited the chances of sending the spores into the air" when she opened the letter because she "immediately" put the letter back on her desk. Further, the office building's ventilation system was shut down a half hour after the letter was found. Daschle said, "The risk is almost negligible. The antibiotics are so effective that there is virtually no risk if we can treat those who are exposed quickly enough. That's what happened yesterday and that's why our level of confidence is so high" (Lichtblau et al., Los Angeles Times, 10/17). Regardless, "[h]undreds" of Capitol employees yesterday "submitted" to nasal-swab tests to determine anthrax exposure and began taking antibiotics (Merzer/Kuhnhenn, Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/17).