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Copycat Anthrax Terrorists?

The New York Times reports that Federal health officials confirmed the presence of anthrax in a letter sent to a pediatrician in Chile from Florida. But it was not the strain that killed five Americans. U.S. disease control officials say the anthrax is similar to strains that have been found in Turkey.

Chilean public health officials found no traces of anthrax in the offices of Dr. Antonio Banfi, who received the letter two weeks ago. It was a printed advertisement from a medical publishing company in Orlando. The letter did not follow the pattern of the other anthrax mailings. Those envelopes were postmarked in Trenton, did not have real return addresses and were written in block letters, while the Chilean spores were sent in a business envelope from an actual business. Unlike the other letters, the envelope in Chile did not contain powder.

Dr. Banfi, a 56-year-old pediatrician, says that on the afternoon of Nov. 13 he received a letter at his clinic that appeared suspicious because of the strange combination of postmarks. Although the return address was Orlando, the letter was postmarked Zurich, Switzerland. It turns out the letter was sent by DHL, which uses a Swiss bulk mail shipper in New York. This is why it had a Swiss postmark.

Dr. Banfi put the unopened letter in a plastic bag, sealed the bag with tape, and called the police, who gave it to the Institute of Public Health. ?There is no doubt about it, the anthrax is confirmed,? says Institute director Jeanette Vega Morales. The letter was sealed when it arrived at her office, and it was immediately taken to their high-security laboratory for testing. ?There?s no chance of contamination from the lab,? she says. ?And we do not believe that the envelope was deliberately contaminated with anthrax spores in Chile.?

The laboratory where the spores were cultured has air filters and sanitized, compartmentalized work stations and is staffed by technicians who wear protective clothing. There had not been a single accidental contamination there since it was built in 1997, and that no case of anthrax has been reported in Santiago since 1994.

No powder was found in the letter, but its insides were swabbed by technicians wearing protective gloves. The specimen was cultivated in a petri dish and tested positive for anthrax. It was then sent to the United States for further testing.

Could there be a copycat anthrax terrorist out there who is sending anthrax to his real (or imagined) enemies? There could be more than one, confusing FBI investigations even further. Suspicious letters were sent to Kenya and the Bahamas, but these turned out to test negative for anthrax.

?It was random,? Dr. Banfi believes. ?Send it to a doctor and see what happens is what someone probably thought if it was an act of terrorism.?

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