Anthrax Continues to Surface; Source Unknown

Government officials have not yet identified the source behind the bioterrorist attack that has left five people dead from anthrax, and spores of the bacterium continue to be found in new locations. (See ACT, November 2001.)

Since the beginning of October, anthrax-laden mail has contaminated news media buildings, postal facilities, and government offices. In all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has diagnosed 23 cases of anthrax: 11 (including the five who have died) with inhalation anthrax, and 12 (seven confirmed and five suspected) with cutaneous anthrax, which is more responsive to treatment than the inhaled form.

Of the 23 cases, all but two have involved news media or postal employees who apparently had either direct or indirect contact with the bacterium. However, the cause of anthrax exposure in the other two cases, in which a New York City hospital worker died October 31 and a 94-year-old Connecticut woman died November 21, remains a mystery.

Little new evidence has surfaced to assist investigators uncover the perpetrator behind the attacks. On November 7, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said, “We have not ruled out whether this was an act of an individual or a collective act, whether it was a domestic source or a foreign source.”

Investigators are examining whether an anthrax-filled letter addressed to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that was discovered November 16 may contain forensics clues, such as fingerprints, to help identify the source. Previously discovered mail contaminated with anthrax spores yielded no such information. The Leahy letter, which has not yet been opened, was found after authorities sorted through congressional mail that had been quarantined following the October 15 discovery of an anthrax-laced letter addressed to Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD). On NBC’s Meet the Press November 25, Leahy said preliminary tests showed there was enough anthrax in the letter addressed to him to kill 100,000 people.

In November, traces of anthrax continued to turn up in government buildings, including the offices of Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT), and at additional postal sites, such as a Kansas City, Missouri, facility that received cross-contaminated mail from a Washington postal facility.