US officials launched a full-scale investigation into a possible bio-terrorism attack in southern Florida after a second man tested positive for the anthrax bacteria and inspectors found further traces of the microbe in the building where he and the first victim both worked.
The building, housing the corporate headquarters of most of America's supermarket tabloids, is just a few miles from the beach town used as an address by several of the 11 September suicide hijackers. It was sealed off to all but federal and local health inspectors yesterday, while hundreds of employees of the American Media group lined up at a county health clinic for tests.
Last week, an extremely rare form of airborne anthrax killed Bob Stevens, a British- born picture editor at The Star newspaper who worked at the American Media building in Boca Raton. Over the weekend, health inspectors found more anthrax spores on Mr Stevens' computer keyboard.
The new victim, named as Ernesto Blanco, 73, and believed to be a mailroom worker, tested positive for the same strain of the bacteria after a sample was taken from his nasal passages. He has yet to fall ill, and is now receiving antibiotic treatment in hospital. He is expected to recover.
The FBI was on hand and John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, said in Washington that the case was being treated as a possible precursor to a criminal investigation.
Until now, health and law enforcement officials had sought to minimise any link between Mr Stevens' death and possible terrorist activity, pointing out that anthrax occurs in nature, particularly around farm animals, and that the strain found in Mr Stevens was not the antibiotic-resistant type known to have been developed in government laboratories for biological warfare.
Even yesterday, a spokes-man for the Palm Beach County Health Department, Tim O'Connor, said the American Media building was being shut down only as a precaution. However, no case of airborne pulmonary anthrax had been diagnosed in the United States since 1976, and now two cases have been discovered in the same building.
Boca Raton is five miles from Delray Beach, where a number of the hijackers kept addresses. In mid-August, their alleged ringleader, Mohamed Atta, was flying planes out of Lantana airport, about 10 miles from Boca Raton and less than a mile from Bob Stevens' house. He is also known to have inquired about crop-dusters at an airport in Belle Glade, about 40 miles inland.
Dick Spertzl, a consultant on biological warfare and a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, said it was possible, but unlikely, that the outbreak was the result of a deliberate attack.
"We don't have enough information to know what happened in this case yet, but in order to be detected on a keyboard or in the nostrils or lungs of a person, it would have had to be released in the building itself," he said. Asked how easy it is to produce anthrax, Mr Spertzl said: "A dedicated individual can learn how to make weapons-grade anthrax."
The effects of any attack would not be immediate, since anthrax has an incubation period of up to 60 days.Reuse content