A third employee who worked in the AMI publishing building in Boca Raton, Florida, has tested positive for exposure to the anthrax bacteria. The unidentified 35-year-old woman is being treated with antibiotics and is not expected to develop the deadly disease, Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi says. One employee, Robert Stevens, died of the disease, and a second, Ernesto Blanco, also tested positive for exposure to it.
Health officials say that the anthrax strain cannot naturally develop at a workplace station such as a computer keyboard, where it was found. However, FBI special agent Hector Pesquera says there is no evidence that the anthrax was produced or spread by terrorist groups connected with the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. But federal authorities have not ruled out a connection and are continuing to investigate that possibility. U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis says investigators do not know how the offices became contaminated. ?We?re still looking at it. We?ve not developed what I?d characterize as conceivable theories about how it got into the building.? Since Ernesto Blanco worked in the building?s mail room, it may have been mailed to Stevens in a letter which was brought to his desk by Blanco. This has inspired a wave of suspicious mailings to IRS offices and other government buildings throughout the country, probably by vicious ?copycat? pranksters.
Ernesto Blanco is being interviewed by FBI agents from his hospital bed at Cedars Medical Center of Miami as authorities continue to try to piece together how the anthrax got into the AMI building, which houses the offices of such tabloids as The Sun and The National Enquirer.
FBI special agent Judy Orihuela says they want to learn more from Blanco, who has worked at AMI for 12 years. ?We?re talking to him about his contact with Robert Stevens, his mail distribution procedures, his daily routine.?
Veronica Carner, Blanco?s step-granddaughter, confirms that her grandfather knew George Stevens ?very well.?
Florida health official say preliminary results from environmental tests at the Boca Raton building indicate no traces of the anthrax bacteria except those found on Stevens? computer keyboard, although testing has not yet been completed. No traces of anthrax were found at Stevens? home in Lantana, Florida. Tests at other places Stevens visited, such as grocery stores, restaurants and parks, also turned up negative.
Law enforcement sources say the anthrax found in Florida has been identified as the Ames strain of anthrax, which was discovered in the early 1950s by Ames, Iowa, researchers, who found it in the tissue of a dead animal. In the 50 years since then, the strain has been distributed to researchers all over the world, and used to make anthrax vaccines. Because the strain found in Florida responds to antibiotics, U.S. authorities immediately suspected that it was not engineered as a biological weapon, but came from a medical research lab.
The Ames strain has been passed around freely for decades because it grows well in culture dishes, says Norman Cheville, dean of Iowa State?s college of veterinary medicine. Researchers at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases have studied it for years and have distributed it periodically to university researchers. The strain is so widespread that confirming the variety tells the FBI little about where the Boca Raton spores came from, according to Ronald Atlas, dean of the University of Louisville graduate school and president-elect of the American Society for Microbiology.
AMI Chief Executive David Pecker thinks his company may have been targeted because of its name and says, ?I think this is an attack against America. The World Trade Center was attacked, the Pentagon was attacked, and American Media was attacked, and I think this was the first bio-terrorism attack in United States.?
Pecker says he has gotten calls from people who said they were afraid to touch his newspapers because they were afraid they would catch anthrax. The CDC says there is no risk of this and the papers are not even printed in Florida.
Officials investigating the Florida office anthrax scare say two of the hijackers subscribed to the papers published by AMI. They?re not sure if this finding means anything?it may not be relevant.
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