Third Anthrax Case Confirmed, Now a Criminal Investigation
Federal officials announced yesterday that a third person who worked in a South Florida office has been exposed to anthrax in a case that is now a criminal investigation, the New York Times reports. Officials said that they found traces of the bacteria in the nasal passages of a 35-year-old woman who worked at the Boca Raton headquarters of the tabloid publishing company American Media Inc. Like Ernesto Blanco, the second person exposed to anthrax, the woman -- whose name was withheld at her request -- was not showing any symptoms of anthrax and had been prescribed antibiotics (Canedy/Yardley, New York Times, 10/11). Robert Stevens, a photo editor at American Media, died last Friday from inhalation anthrax, the first such case in the United States since 1976. According to Hector Pesquera, the FBI agent leading the Florida investigation, Stevens worked in the same "general vicinity" as Blanco and the unidentified woman. Hoping to "reassure the public," Dr. John Agwunobi, Florida's health secretary, said that "all evidence to date indicates that the anthrax issue is limited to the [American Media] building," adding that the disease is not contagious (Stroh/Bor, Baltimore Sun, 10/11).
The criminal investigation will focus on "how and when" anthrax entered the building, who placed it there, and why, according to Guy Lewis, acting U.S. attorney for South Florida (Sharp, USA Today, 10/11). Despite a "step[ping] up" of the criminal investigation, however, Pesquera said that there is "no indication" that the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were involved with the anthrax incident in Florida (Terhune/McGinley, Wall Street Journal, 10/11). While officials have not ruled out the possibility that the anthrax was "engineered" as a biological weapon, the fact that the Florida strain has responded to antibiotics suggests otherwise (Slevin/Blum, Washington Post, 10/11). So far, more than 1,000 employees and visitors to the American Media building have been tested for possible exposure and treated with antibiotics. Results from roughly 700 are known, with the rest due back in about two days (Dahlburg/Zitner, Los Angeles Times, 10/11). According to Agwunobi, the chance that anyone else will develop full-blown anthrax is "low" because American Media employees have been prescribed antibiotics(Wall Street Journal, 10/11). Dr. Scott Lillibridge, chief bioterrorism adviser to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, told a House panel yesterday that the strain's sensitivity to medications is "not the hallmark of an engineered bioweapon" (New York Times, 10/11). "If this was a massive exposure, there should be lots of people sick," he added (Los Angeles Times, 10/11).
Instead, officials "suspect" that the Florida strain "emerged from a medical research lab" (Washington Post, 10/11). Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that federal officials have told him that the strain "came from sort of laboratory," which indicates to "that there is absolute criminal intent" (Wall Street Journal, 10/11). The CDC is "racing" to identify the strain, which is a "tedious and time-consuming task," USA Today reports (Parker et al., USA Today, 10/11). The New York Times reports that American researchers have "accumulated" 1,200 samples of anthrax, and 400 of these have been subjected to DNA analysis (New York Times, 10/11). While several reports have surfaced that the Florida strain was traced to one that was first isolated in a laboratory in Ames, Iowa, in the 1950s, CDC investigators "discounted" the theory (USA Today, 10/11). Dr. Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax expert at Louisiana State University who is advising officials working to identify the strain, said that the Ames strain has been sent to laboratories around the world for research purposes. Noting that the Florida strain does not appear to match the Ames strain, Hugh-Jones said even if they did match, the Florida strain "could be from anywhere" (New York Times, 10/11).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.