The Anthrax attacks; Still a mystery five years after. OPINION)(Column).Leonard A. Cole. The Record (Bergen County, NJ)
(Oct 15, 2006): pO01. (782 words)�

Full Text:COPYRIGHT 2006 North Jersey Media Group Inc.�


WEEKS AFTER the jetliner attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were stunned to find themselves under assault from yet another form of terrorism. People were becoming sick and dying from anthrax infections at improbable locations up and down the Eastern seaboard. The outbreak was traced to mail that had been leaking lethal spores into the postal system and beyond.

Now, five years later, nagging uncertainties still persist about the anthrax letters. They range from the curious effects of the disease on some survivors to the continuing failure to identify the source of the letters.

Four anthrax letters were found, two of them postmarked Sept. 18, and two Oct. 9. They were addressed to Tom Brokaw at NBC-TV, the New York Post, Sen. Tom Daschle and Sen. Patrick Leahy. But all four were stamped "Trenton, NJ," which meant they had been processed at the large postal sorting center in nearby Hamilton after being mailed in the Princeton-Trenton area.

By the time the outbreak ended in November, 22 people had become infected.

Florida to Connecticut

Trails of anthrax spores extended from Florida to Connecticut, and 30,000 people at risk received prophylactic antibiotics. Five of the victims were New Jersey postal workers who became very ill but survived.

Others outside the state were less fortunate. Among the people who were infected after inhaling spores, five died. But, strangely, many of the survivors continued to show symptoms of the disease long after they were ostensibly cured.

One New Jersey inhalation victim, Norma Wallace, was unable to return to her post office job for more than four years. Her former co-worker, Jyotsna Patel, is still too ill to work. Medical authorities remain puzzled over the survivors' lingering symptoms, which include muscle ache, fatigue and memory loss. Whether those effects are physically or psychologically rooted is unclear and are a continuing subject of study at the National Institutes of Health.

Another reigning mystery involves the identity of the mailer. Coming so soon after Sept. 11, several people believed that al-Qaida was somehow involved in the bioattack. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation postulated that the culprit was a domestic scientist with access to anthrax and the expertise to refine it. The bureau focused on individuals who had been associated with the U.S. biological defense program.

Domestic source?

A key reason for the domestic loner idea was that the virulent Ames strain of bacteria in the letters was thought to be stored almost exclusively in U.S. laboratories. Further, many experts believed the spores had been finely processed in a manner familiar to American biodefense scientists.

In November 2001, the bureau posted on its Web site a profile of the likely mailer: a man who holds grudges, is non-confrontational and prefers to be by himself. The FBI description was broadcast to the general public in hopes that "someone of their acquaintance might fit the profile." If anyone subsequently reported such an acquaintance, that fact has not been made public.

The FBI conducted more than 9,000 interviews in quest of suspects, though after its initial information campaign, the bureau became tightlipped. But now, on the fifth anniversary of the anthrax attacks, Douglas Beecher, an FBI microbiologist, has produced a blockbuster acknowledgement.

In the August issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, he refuted the notion that the spores in the letters were the result of sophisticated or military-type production. They had in fact been developed through common laboratory techniques.

Further, Serguei Popov, a former Soviet bioweapons scientist now at George Mason University in Virginia, scoffs at the idea that the Ames strain was limited to U.S. laboratories. It was available in the Soviet Union, he said, and the anthrax in the letters "could have come from anywhere in the world."

Beecher's and Popov's observations make clear that the FBI's earlier focus may have been too narrow. The unsettling conclusion is that the killer, or killers, could have been based in the United States or overseas.

We may be no closer to knowing the source now than five years ago.

Improved detection measures

The good news is that if anthrax were mailed today, the bacterium would probably be detected quickly. Since 2001, the 282 postal sorting centers throughout the country have been outfitted with

1,300 biodetection systems.
I stood beside one of the detection devices recently in the Hamilton postal center. The machine

draws in air samples as the mail is processed, and indicates within 40 minutes whether anthrax DNA
is present. Very impressive, I told my postal security escort.
But what if a different bacterial agent were in the mail?
He smiled faintly and said, "We're still working on that."
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Source Citation:Cole, Leonard A. "The Anthrax attacks; Still a mystery five years later." The Record (Bergen County, NJ) (Oct 15, 2006): O01. Custom Newspapers. Gale. Bergen County Cooperative Library Sys. 14 May 2008 <>.

Gale Document Number:CJ152932414 Disclaimer: This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

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