Leroy Richmond, age 57, who works in the District of Columbia post office, has come down with inhaled anthrax and is seriously ill. Another worker has been diagnosed with the inhaled form of the disease.
Richmond works in the main processing center in the area where workers handle the mail that is delivered to Senator Daschle?s office and he presumably came in contact with the letter sent to the senator that contained anthrax.
Two other postal workers have died, and it is now believed that they have perished from inhaling anthrax.
This indicates that letters containing anthrax could spread the inhalation form of the disease fairly easily. Other workers who could have handled the Daschle letter are being identified and tested.
Meanwhile, New Jersey investigators are checking postal routes and facilities near West Trenton, New Jersey that were involved in handling anthrax-contaminated letters sent to NBC News and the New York Post. Two New Jersey postal workers have contracted the skin form of anthrax, which is less serious than pulmonary anthrax. Tests revealed the presence of anthrax spores in 13 of 23 postal work areas in Trenton?s main mail processing facility, including areas where mail is sorted by machine.
Before the D.C. postal worker fell ill, six of the nine people infected in the last several weeks had the easily treated cutaneous form of the disease, which affects the skin. Pulmonary anthrax is more lethal and therefore more effective as a weapon.
All forms of anthrax-related illness are caused by the same bacterium. However, when it is inhaled, it is at its most lethal. In general, naturally occuring anthrax cannot easily be inhaled because the spores are too large and tend to be sticky. It takes a milling or 'weaponizing' process to make the spores small enough to inhale.
Deborah K. Willhite, a senior vice president for government relations and public policy for the U.S. Postal Service, says there is no evidence that ordinary customers are at risk of contracting anthrax. FBI agents are interviewing residents along the route of a postal worker in West Trenton who is infected with skin anthrax.
The D.C. postal worker?s case has revived suspicions that the anthrax sent to Washington and New York is the ?weaponized? type?that is, ground into a fine powder that can be easily inhaled. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman says that ?significantly refined anthrax? was involved in the recent attacks.
To make ordinary anthrax ?into the stuff that?s being sent in envelopes, that requires a real effort, and, frankly, more than a couple of guys in somebody?s kitchen stirring things up,? he says. ?So it says to me that there?s either a significant amount of money behind this, or this is state-sponsored or this is stuff that was stolen from the former Sovietprogram.?
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has said that the samples found at NBC, in Daschle?s office and at American Media Inc. were not weaponized. But Richard Spertzel, a Maryland-based bioterror consultant, says that since the Washington postal employee has developed inhalation anthrax, the material was small enough and remained airborne long enough to be breathed into the lungs, which means the anthrax is ?weapons grade.?
The weaponized version of anthrax may also be genetically modified to resist antibiotics or to withstand a missile explosion, but so far, this has not been the case. The anthrax tested responds to antibiotics and has been identified as closely related to the Ames strain which was developed in an Iowa lab and distributed around the world for use in developing an anthrax vaccine for cattle.
?There?s no question in my mind,? says Spertzel, who was part of the group that inspected Iraq?s weapons programs after the Persian Gulf War. ?The idea that this is the work of a lone nut, that?s wishful thinking.?
Iraq is a prime suspect for the source of the anthrax since it is known to have stockpiles of anthrax. However, it was turned down when it tried to obtain samples of the Ames strain from a Western European laboratory. Spertzel says Iraq also tried to get the strain elsewhere, including from sources in Eastern Europe and Africa, and it is unknown whether those attempts were successful. Also, scientists are not sure whether Iraq has been successful in producing a finely-powdered form of anthrax.
?The big question is, ?Is Iraq cooperating [with the terrorists] or not??? says Spertzel. ?If they are, I think there is ample reason to worry.?
Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says, ?We know that Iraq has played a role in the past in supporting other groups of global terrorists. Iraq will continue to be in our crosshairs. But at this point we don?t have the basis on which to pull the trigger.?
During the past week, we have received conflicting news about the type of anthrax involved in these attacks. We were originally told that the anthrax sent to the AMI building in Florida was from the Ames, Iowa laboratory and therefore not ?weaponized.?
On October 18, we were told that attacks on the New York media and the District of Columbia used the same type of anthrax that was used in Florida, meaning non-weaponized. Non-weaponized anthrax could have come from one of the many recipients of the samples of bacteria sent out from the Ames laboratory.
However, when New York Governor Pataki?s Manhattan office was thought to have been infected by State Police in a nearby office who had investigated the NBC and ABC attacks, it pointed to the fact that this was a finer form of power that could easily be transported from place to place by an innocent carrier. The D.C. postal worker?s infection confirms this.
The anthrax sent to Senator Daschle in D.C. was described by the media as being ?weaponized,? and checks of the ventilation systems of government office buildings began. This means that the anthrax that?s being used can?t be from a program to develop a vaccine for veterinarians. And it can?t have come from inside the U.S., since we destroyed our anthrax weapons stockpile in 1972.
On October 19, we reported that a Russian source for the anthrax is suspected because it?s known that they developed a finely powdered form of the bacteria. Some experts think that Iraq may never have progressed past the liquid form of weapon, although the extent of their recent experiments is not known, since Iraq has refused to let weapons inspectors into the country during the past few years.
As of today, Tom Ridge, head of the newly-created office of Homeland Security, is still saying that the anthrax used in the attacks on the U.S. is not ?weaponized.? We hope Homeland Security was not put in place to spread disinformation in an attempt to calm the public. While depressing facts have been kept from the public during past wars (and in peacetime, as well), the secrets are always revealed eventually and when that occurs, distrust of the government increases. With the internet bringing us news from all over the world, it will be harder than ever to keep facts from the American people and we hope the government realizes this and decides to be straight with us. We deserve to know what we?ll be facing in the future.
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