Killer bug grips scandal rags! But for the people of Florida, this is deadly serious

War against terrorism: Anthrax
Click to follow
The Independent US

If it weren't so grimly serious, it could almost be funny. The corporate headquarters of America's sleaziest supermarket tabloids, the place where the editors of the National Enquirer, Sun and Star usually spend all day dreaming up "UFO Aliens Ate My Grandmother" headlines, was overrun yesterday by government inspectors in white moon suits muttering darkly about bioterrorism and the risks of contamination by a deadly disease.

If it weren't so grimly serious, it could almost be funny. The corporate headquarters of America's sleaziest supermarket tabloids, the place where the editors of the National Enquirer, Sun and Star usually spend all day dreaming up "UFO Aliens Ate My Grandmother" headlines, was overrun yesterday by government inspectors in white moon suits muttering darkly about bioterrorism and the risks of contamination by a deadly disease.

A few weeks ago, such a scenario would not have seemed believable outside the feverish imagination of tabloid journalists themselves. But now, less than a month after the attacks on New York and Washington, America is being forced to wake up to a new horror: the likelihood that it has received its first taste of biological warfare.

Two cases of anthrax have been diagnosed so far, and one man has died. The inspectors who began testing the American Media building in Boca Raton, Florida, over the weekend, discovered further traces of anthrax on the dead man's computer keyboard, and the possibility of further cases has not been ruled out.

Government officials have yet to confirm that they have launched a full-scale criminal investigation, but the FBI has taken control of the health teams, and the likelihood of foul play is so strong as to be virtually irrefutable.

By yesterday, something akin to panic was spreading from Boca Raton. The office building had turned into a scene out of a science-fiction movie, and hundreds of American Media employees, their families, and casual contacts were lining up for anthrax tests and a hefty dose of precautionary antibiotics.

One of Florida's two senators, Bob Graham, was widely quoted yesterday as having asked the head of the federal centres for disease control what the chances were of an outbreak of anthrax in an office building through anything other than human intervention. "His words were 'nil to none','' Senator Graham said. "This didn't just happen by some natural cause [like] a sheep happened to come into the press room ...."

The alarm bells were first sounded last Thursday, when Bob Stevens, a British-born photographer and layout editor at a tabloid called the Sun, was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of airborne anthrax. He had returned home early from a holiday in North Carolina complaining of flu-like symptoms. Then he started vomiting and running a fever. On Tuesday last week, he was rushed to hospital and lost consciousness within hours. By Friday he was dead.

At first, government officials insisted this was an isolated case and urged people, including Mr Stevens's family and co-workers, not to panic. But then, over the weekend, a 73-year-old mailroom supervisor called Ernesto Blanco was found to be carrying anthrax spores. He was in hospital with an unrelated heart problem and was tested twice before the anthrax showed up. He is not believed to have developed symptoms, and is expected to recover.

The authorities have also called back a third person, a 67-year-old librarian called Martha Moffett, for further testing. She was in hospital with pneumonia last week and initially tested negative for anthrax. But the disease can take up to seven days to develop and can then incubate for a further 60 days, so health officials are taking no chances.

At America's latest "ground zero", the American Media building was off-limits to all but "hazmat" (hazardous materials) inspectors, who worked through Monday night and yesterday morning. The car park was jammed with police vehicles, unmarked refrigeration trucks, two large vans bearing Budget rent-a-car logos and a handful of cars belonging to BellSouth telephone engineers, apparently called in to set up a telecommunications system for a swarm of FBI agents.

Five miles away in Delray Beach, employees of American Media, their families and recent visitors to the building lined up at a health clinic for a second day to be tested for anthrax and to fill out questionnaires about their precise movements, and about any suspicious or unusual activity they may have spotted.

Each of them had their nostrils swabbed, and the samples were rubbed on a red petri dish, sealed and packed in a van for transportation to a laboratory.

The results are expected to take several days, possibly weeks, to establish. As a precaution, most of the adults were given a 15-day supply of the antibiotic Cipro, with instructions to obtain more, with a blood test, from their usual doctors. Children and pregnant women were prescribed a more common but less effective antibiotic, amoxycillin, to avoid any dangerous side-effects.

If the employees and their families had any forebodings, they were largely forced to keep them to themselves. FBI agents monitored their every move around the health clinic, and a number who were approached by reporters said they had been warned by their employer not to talk to the press on pain of being fired.

Being tabloid journalists, they have not been totally silenced, and several wild theories have already started circulating. One report suggested that a Middle Eastern intern had circulated a bizarre e-mail when he left the organisation in August, referring to a "surprise" he had left behind. It turns out, however, that the intern, Jordan Arizmendi, is a third-generation US citizen of Spanish-Basque descent, and investigators have already dismissed his e-mail as irrelevant to their investigation.

Another rumour has focused on a strange package supposedly handled by both Mr Stevens and Mr Blanco, which contained a love letter to Jennifer Lopez, a Star of David, and a strange soapy powder. Again, the FBI has said this is not a plausible lead.

More immediately suspicious is the fact that a number of the 11 September hijackers stayed in Delray Beach during the summer. Their apparent ringleader, Mohamed Atta, flew planes out of Lantana airport, a mile from Mr Stevens's house, in mid-August, and is also believed to have asked about cropduster planes – for possible use in a biological attack – at an airfield 40 miles away.

Officials have found no concrete link between the hijackers and the anthrax outbreak. And they have not excluded the possibility that a biological attack was launched after 11 September by any number of possible suspects, including people who have developed a grudge against the tabloids for their take-no-prisoners reporting style. A report in The Miami Herald says health inspectors believe anthrax entered the building somewhere around 23 to 25 September.

When used as a weapon, anthrax is most likely to be distributed via an aerosol-style spray, making it likely that it came in through the air-conditioning. Less likely, investigators say, is that it came into the building through the mail. The FBI is developing lists of people with access to the building, including interns, former employees, guests, couriers and delivery men. They are also looking at members of a construction crew who have been building a new cafeteria.

Meanwhile, Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, the President's brother, announced that extra supplies of antibiotics were being shipped into Palm Beach County as a precaution. "This is all pretty new," Mr Bush said. "To be honest, I'm not an expert on anthrax. I never thought I'd need to be."

THE LETHAL SPORES

A LARGE dose of anthrax is needed to kill. A human being must breathe at least 2,500 spores an hour to get a lethal dose, although some people are more susceptible than others, depending on their natural immunity.

This limits the value of the bacterium to terrorists. Although anthrax is always the first agent mentioned in any discussion of bioterrorism, it would not be easy to mount an attack using it.

The Japanese religious cult Aun Shinrikyo made four attempts with anthrax, throwing it off a building in Tokyo, before giving up and turning to the nerve agent sarin, which they released on the Tokyo subway in 1995. That attack killed 12 and injured 5,000. Anthrax mainly affects livestock. The spores, which can survive for decades, are widely present in the soil.

Isolated cases occur in Britain regularly. But the disease cannot be spread from one person to another, so for an attack to claim many lives a very large number of spores would have to be released over a wide area simultaneously. Last year a factory worker in Bradford was struck by the cutaneous variety, which causes large sores on the skin. There have been four previous cases in Britain in the past decade.

Pulmonary anthrax, which is the kind that killed Bob Stevens in Florida last week, is rarer and more dangerous.

Jeremy Laurance

Comments