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Anthrax Update

Margaret Warner and health correspondent Susan Dentzer discuss the latest developments in the anthrax story.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Mourners gathered for the funeral today of a Washington, DC postal worker killed by inhalation anthrax, as traces of the bacteria continued to surface in additional government facilities. All of the newly contaminated locations discovered this week– off-site mailrooms for the Supreme Court, the CIA, the State Department, and at two army installations– receive mail from the main Brentwood postal facility in Washington. At the State Department today, Spokesman Richard Boucher said state's downtown mailroom and its off-site Sterling, Virginia mail facility, have been sealed for testing. Nearly 300 employees are taking antibiotics.

  • RICHARD BOUCHER:

    People who work at the main center in Sterling, Virginia who worked… Worked there– it's now shut down– are taking 60 days of it. The rest of the people in the mail handling in this building and elsewhere are taking ten days. We've instructed our overseas posts to give Cipro to their employees who handle the bulk mail, and that will be done. The State Department pouch system, the mail system, is essentially shut down.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So far, the only tainted letter found in Washington went from New Jersey through Brentwood to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on Capitol Hill. White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer today reported the latest conclusions from analyzing the anthrax in that letter.

  • ARI FLEISCHER:

    An analysis of the anthrax that was sent to Senator Daschle's office shows that this anthrax has a sophistication that leads people to know that it could only be produced by a Ph.D. microbiologist, and it would have to have been done in small, well equipped microbiology lab, or it could be in something like a small microbiology lab. That does not rule out that it could be state-sponsored. That does not rule out that it could come from a foreign location, but it certainly expand it beyond state sponsorship or foreign locations.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    On a morning news show, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge was asked whether so many contaminations might not reflect the presence of other anthrax-tainted letters in Washington's mail system.

  • TOM RIDGE:

    Our primary focus is to identify areas of contamination and if it is medically necessary to isolate and to treat the exposure victims. At the same time, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Secret Service are trying to determine whether or not there are other letters in the system that are contaminating these rooms.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Late this afternoon, Washington officials said anthrax had been found in another city post office. The southwest station has been shut down. Employees there were already taking antibiotics. For more, we turn to Susan Dentzer of our health unit, a partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

    Susan, just to recap this week, there's been a lot of discussion about the quality of the anthrax in the Daschle letter. Now, yesterday Tom Ridge said it was very common strain yet he also called it very sophisticated as Ari Fleischer did today. Explain how both those can be true.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    It is in fact both, Margaret. By common strain, what people are referring to here is that this appears to be the so-called Ames strain. That was a strain of anthrax that was first isolated almost 50 years ago at a U.S. Department of Agriculture diagnostic lab in Ames, Iowa, coming out of the soil, infecting animals that region. In fact it's been distributed since then to probably 200-plus laboratories in the United States, probably 1,000 laboratories around the world, as a standard stock strain of the anthrax bacteria. So it's widely dispersed and, therefore, common in that sense. What's uncommon about this is that it has been engineered in such a way to be, as they say, readily aerosolized. That means — in effect — that what somebody has done is taken the anthrax spores, added to them some kind of a chemical to get in the way of a normal electro static process that causes the spores to clump together. A chemical has been added to declump them, in effect. That makes them very fine. They are able then to be dispersed very readily into the air much as if you put some talcum powder on your palm and blew it, it would quickly blow up into the air and disperse very widely. That's why it takes a certain degree of sophistication.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    By the same token Ari Fleischer also said today as we heard that they've now determined that it's not so sophisticated that it had to be produced in a government lab. Instead he said, well, microbiologists could do it. Again, how can they tell that?

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    In effect a Ph.D. microbiologist who had determined to spend a lot of time mastering the art of bioterrorism would have been able to do this because that person would have been able to understand that this chemical needed to be added, that in fact these spores had to be a certain size. They have to be, if you will, less than five microns in size just for purposes of comparison, a human hair is 100 microns wide. So these are very, very small spores. One would have to know that they have to be made that small to be basically readily aerosolized.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But the process, he's saying, isn't so sophisticated like genetic modification that it had to be done in a government lab.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    That's right. It appears to be the case that it wasn't genetically modified to be resistant to anti-antibiotics.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Do the medical experts and the scientific experts you're talking to, do they believe that the anthrax in the Daschle letter was so bow tent that it could have contaminated so far down the stream, including infecting a State Department worker who never was in the facility where the Daschle letter came but probably handled mail that came from there?

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    There are only two possible explanations. One of which is that exactly what you said happened. And, in fact, as Secretary Thompson told many of us in a press phone call today that a whole… A hole in an envelope or something could get through an envelope unopened if it were less than ten microns in size, and these spores people think were less than five microns in size, o it's possible that the spores escaped through a sealed envelope and dispersed very widely. It's more likely and in fact the head of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Koplan said today that at least one other leading suspicion is that people simply have not put their hands on and of course may well be the case in New York where there are still cases of anthrax that can't readily be explained by pieces of mail that haven't yet materialized.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Finally, the other thing that happened this week is that the CDC… We seem to have evolving beliefs both about what it takes to get infected with anthrax and treat, infection, first of all.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    Everything is evolving. Everything is in flux. Just in terms of infection it's clear, for example, that the two postal workers who died this week were infected. Actually one of them appeared at the hospital with symptoms very much akin to flu. There was no reason to expect he had anything other than that. He was sent home with a diagnosis of gastroenteritis, what one thinks of as the stomach flu and in fact came back 24 hours later with so much bacteria in his blood that he was essentially clinically dead at that moment. That's very… people are noticing now that the progression of diseases can be much more rapid, can produce itself in symptoms that look very different and can be very deadly, much more quickly than people expected.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Very briefly, treatment. They're now just putting people on Cipro, the antibiotic, whether or not they show signs of infection if they were exposed at all.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    That's right. In fact, a worker….

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Not even testing them.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    Not even testing them. One instance this week someone presented at a hospital with suspected potentially to have anthrax he was put on Cipro, immediately sent home. His blood was cultured and tested. By the time he came back he could be put on three antibiotics and treated for full-fledged inhalational anthrax.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. Susan, thanks a lot.

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