Archive for Thursday, October 25, 2001

Senator says anthrax shows level of sophistication

October 25, 2001

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— The anthrax spores that killed two postal workers were so small and finely milled that they suggest "more than a casual scientist" is behind the attacks through the mail, Sen. Bill Frist said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Frist, a surgeon before he was a senator, predicted "there will be more illness." Whoever mailed the anthrax-laced letters wanted to "personalize the terror" by making Americans fearful to open their mailboxes, he added.

Anthrax spores that spewed into the air of a Capitol Hill office and a Washington postal facility were aerosolized manipulated to a tiny size and finely milled in a very sophisticated manner, said Frist, R-Tenn.

"The aerosolization of this product, of the weapon itself, had never been done before to the degree that it has," he said. "It suggests more than a casual scientist is involved in its manufacture."

"I would not use the word weaponized," he cautioned.

Regular masks will not protect postal workers or anyone else from such small bacteria, Frist said.

"The masks we use in surgery are no good, that's false security," he said. Even the better-filtered masks doctors use around tuberculosis patients won't work, he said.

Special battery-operated masks similar to those worn by certain workers clearing the destroyed World Trade Center in New York are the only reliable kind, but are hard to wear, Frist said.

New recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will advise the U.S. Postal Service that several specially fitted respirators with spore-trapping filters can be used, and to offer the battery-operated kind when workers can't be properly fitted with others.

Host of issues

Frist, who is advising Congress about the anthrax threat, made the comments in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday. He also:

l Said vaccinating certain postal workers against anthrax isn't practical. Some protection arises within six weeks, but full protection takes 18 months. Still, the vaccine's one manufacturer, Michigan-based Bioport, has "a whole lot" of shots available once the Food and Drug Administration approves their sale.

l Predicted the nation won't reinstitute routine smallpox vaccinations, even though the Bush administration is buying 300 million doses. Inoculating everyone would result in an estimated 400 deaths from vaccine side effects, he said.

But, vaccine must be on hand because of the "tiny risk" of a smallpox bioterror attack, he said. If a smallpox-infected American hopped on an international plane flight, "what is our obligation as a nation" to deliver smallpox vaccine to another country where the disease spread?

l Advised against panic about mail safety. "I personally am not that worried" about opening mail.

l Said Congress must shore up the nation's food safety to guard against the possibility of bioterror attacks through the food supply.

l Urged people not to use the antibiotic Cipro unless they really have been exposed to anthrax, because unnecessary use will spur germs to rapidly mutate and become untreatable.

l Said the CDC, under fire after two Washington postal workers died from inhaled anthrax, had no way to predict anthrax spores could swirl through postal offices and sicken people. "It's uncharted ground."

Adding perspective

The size of the anthrax spores that spewed into the air of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office and Washington's Brentwood postal processing center were between 1 1/2 and 3 microns, Frist said.

How small is that? It takes 25,000 microns to equal an inch.

"You can't see it. If you just put a period on your paper there, that's 10,000 spores" roughly the amount needed to cause inhaled anthrax, Frist explained.

In nature, anthrax spores, which are sticky, tend to clump together in sizes 5 microns or larger.

Creating this type of anthrax wouldn't require a large terrorist operation. "It could still be done in a room this size (similar to an average living room), with $100,000, two fermenters and a very, very sophisticated person," he said.

No one knows how enough bacteria got into the Brentwood post office to kill two postal workers and sicken two others who were working inside it. That facility did process Daschle's anthrax-laced letter, but Frist speculated more than one tainted letter must have been mailed.

"The whole purpose is to take down the mail system, not to kill people," he said. "It's to personalize the terror."

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