An NBC News employee in New York became yesterday the fourth American to be discovered with a rare anthrax bacterium, raising fears that media companies may have been targeted for a biological attack through the mail.
The possibility that the anthrax cases in Florida and New York are part of a coordinated bioterrorism attack sent a chill across the nation yesterday. Buildings were evacuated, and top federal officials warned against opening suspicious mail. Scares involving spilled powder and unusual letters were reported all over the United States and Europe.
As an intensive investigation continued into three anthrax cases at a tabloid newspaper chain in Florida, federal officials evacuated NBC's third floor offices at 30 Rockefeller Center yesterday morning. Experts were analyzing powder found in a suspicious letter that the employee opened before a rash erupted on her skin.
The woman, an assistant to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, is in good condition with a form of the disease that is less deadly than the inhaled variety that killed a photographer at the Boca Raton, Fla., tabloid last week.
The FBI said it had no evidence linking the New York and Florida anthrax cases or tying them to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But Vice President Dick Cheney said, "The only responsible thing for us to do is proceed on the basis that it could be linked."
"We know that [terrorist leader Osama bin Laden] has over the years tried to acquire weapons of mass destruction, both biological and chemical weapons," Cheney said in an interview with PBS. "We know that he's trained people in his camps in Afghanistan - we have copies of the manuals that they've actually used to train people with respect to how to deploy and use these kinds of substances."
Medical experts said the sudden appearance in office buildings of a rare disease associated with livestock points toward criminal intentions. The similarity of targets and methods in New York and Florida has heightened suspicions.
The New York Times briefly evacuated its Manhattan offices after Judith Miller, a reporter who has written on bin Laden and bioterrorism, opened an envelope containing a white powder. Like the letter sent to NBC, the envelope sent to Miller was postmarked in St. Petersburg, Fla., the FBI said. Initial tests for anthrax were negative.
A similar scare occurred at the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, where the newspaper building was evacuated when a Halloween card was opened and found to contain powder, which proved to be harmless. Other false alarms were reported from a suburban Denver hospital, the State Department's Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va., a Burbank, Calif., television station and a Microsoft office in Reno, Nev.
During a Washington news conference yesterday, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called the possibility of bioterrorism "a threat that continues to darken our country." But he warned against panic.
"If individuals receive mail of which they are suspicious, they should not open it, they should not shake it," Ashcroft said. "They should leave the area of the mail and call the local law enforcement and health authorities so that the mail can be appropriately dealt with."
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson stressed again that anthrax is not transmitted from person to person and urged Americans not to become overwhelmed with fear. "Don't be intimidated. The terrorists want to scare us, and they want to affect our daily life and see us living in fear," Thompson said. "We cannot let them succeed. We need to live our lives and just be more aware as we go about our business."
At post offices in Baltimore and nationwide, security measures in place since Sept. 11 were heightened yesterday. They're inspecting packages and letters before they're delivered, focusing particularly on high-profile companies and individuals.
"Up until this time, we have not ever seen an incident where actual biological hazards have been transmitted through the United States mails," said Ken Newman, deputy chief of the U.S. postal inspector's office. He said fraudulent threats and hoaxes will be investigated and prosecuted.
In the New York case, NBC News reported that a letter addressed to Brokaw and containing white powder was opened Sept. 25 by his assistant.
Three days later, the woman developed a low-grade fever and a rash. She went to see a doctor, who gave her an antibiotic, Cipro. Yesterday morning, biopsy results showed that she had the cutaneous, or skin, form of anthrax, New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani said at a news conference.
Although early tests of the powder did not reveal any anthrax, those tests may have been inadequate because the sample was so small. More testing is under way, and federal officials said they believe the letter was the likely source of the woman's infection.
After learning of the biopsy results, officials sealed off NBC's third-floor offices. About 200 employees, including Brokaw, are being tested for anthrax and given antibiotics as a precaution, said an NBC spokesman.
Thirty-five investigators with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were sent to New York to take samples from NBC offices and conduct interviews, authorities said.
Blocks away, at The New York Times offices, Miller opened a letter, spilling a white powder, said a reporter who was nearby. Colleagues said the substance smelled like baby powder. Soon after, Miller's work area was sealed off and three men in hazardous-materials suits and a man with a gas mask arrived. The newsroom was evacuated for 2 1/2 hours.
In Boca Raton, Fla., yesterday, where test results have come back for 965 employees and visitors to the American Media Inc. building, no new anthrax cases were reported. One employee, Robert Stevens, died of inhaled anthrax last week, and two others have been exposed. Because traces of anthrax were found in a mailroom receptacle, investigators said yesterday that they are testing postal workers who sort mail for the tabloid newspapers.
Hoax letters and packages containing harmless powder have become frequent in recent years. Gary W. Long, a biologist formerly at the Naval Medical Research Center, said he and his colleagues tested nearly 500 suspicious envelopes containing powder for the FBI, the Secret Service and other agencies in the late 1990s. None contained anthrax, he said.
Anthrax is a bacterial disease that has been found in cattle and sheep for centuries. It is usually transferred when animals eat dirt that has bacteria in it left from the decay of another infected animal.
Anthrax among humans occasionally pops up among farm workers and others who handle wool and hides, but it is extremely rare in the United States. The last case of cutaneous anthrax was in a 67-year-old North Dakota man last year who had handled the carcasses of infected cows.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said it would be relatively easy for a potential terrorist to obtain the anthrax bacteria from the carcass of an infected animal or from one of several labs around the country.
Until the mid-1990s, any laboratory scientist interested in a sample of the bacteria for research purposes could write to the American Type Culture Collection in Rockville, Md., and receive a culture. Dozens of labs around the country had the cultures, which were not kept under lock and key.
Because of fear of terrorism, the federal government tightened control of anthrax and other dangerous pathogens in 1996, limiting access to licensed laboratories. But controls are more lax in many other countries.
According to a 1999 report, 17 countries have bioweapons programs, most of which are likely to involve anthrax.
"Years ago, there were almost no restrictions on anthrax for laboratory purposes," Fauci said. "But now it's a high-security item."
If a terrorist were to obtain a petri dish with the bacteria growing in it, he could starve the bacteria and the anthrax would revert to a spore form that would look like a powder, Fauci said. This powder would be potentially deadly, Fauci said.
In its purest form, the powder would be white, odorless and hard to see when blown into the air, said Calvin Chue, a research scientist with the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies.
People touching the powder could become infected through small cuts in their skin, Fauci said. This cutaneous infection would create skin lesions that would turn into black scabs.
Such infections are rarely fatal, though if left untreated about 20 percent of cases lead to a deadly blood infection.
But the inhaled form of anthrax is far more dangerous. The act of ripping open a letter with anthrax in it could stir up enough spores to infect the lungs, said Fauci.
Within two to 60 days, a victim would develop flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough and chest pains. About 80 percent of people who contract the inhaled form die within days.
Only 18 cases of inhaled anthrax have been reported in the United States this century. The last one before the Florida photographer was in 1976, according to the CDC.
Sun staff writers Gady Epstein, Michael James and Michael Stroh contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun