New scare as anthrax is found in CIA mailroom

War on terrorism: Bacteria
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The Independent US

Any hopes of a rapid end to the anthrax scare in America were dashed as further traces of the bacteria were discovered in a New York post office, an army institute in Maryland and a mailroom handling deliveries to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The US Supreme Court was closed following the discovery of anthrax on a filtre removed from a remote mail facility. The judges were among those tested, and the court will convene on Monday in a federal appeals courtroom if their ususal chambers have not been cleared for reopening.

The traces picked up at the CIA mailroom were described as "medically insignificant" and no new cases were reported of people coming down with anthrax, either the cutaneous or the inhaled form. But the very fact that spores were being picked up, and that nobody was sure where they were coming from, suggested that many previous assumptions about the bacteria's ability to spread were either over-optimistic or plain wrong.

Post Office and health officials are being forced to acknowledge that even an anthrax spore sample sealed inside a taped envelope, like the letter sent to the Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, might have the capacity to infect postal sorting machinery it passes through and to kill people who handle it.

There is now talk of installing machines throughout the country to zap the mail with bacteria-killing electrons, and in the meantime all 500,000 US postal workers are being kitted out with masks and plastic gloves. In a lengthy analysis published in yesterday's Washington Post, Rick Weiss raised the question "whether the US mail stream as a whole at some point might need to be deemed potentially deadly".

The anthrax found at the CIA mail building on its campus in Langley, Virginia, was picked up as part of a wholesale sweep of government buildings around Washington. The building was closed yesterday pending further tests and employees who handle mail there were put on antibiotics as a precaution. A CIA spokesman, Bill Harlow, described the amount of anthrax found as "a trace", and said other CIA buildings were open as usual. "It's not enough to cause inhalation anthrax," he said. "It's considered a medically insignificant amount."

Further traces were found in the mailroom of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, also in Maryland, although initial details of this case were sketchy.

The working assumption in both cases is that the mail passed through the Brentwood sorting facility in Washington, which handled the letter sent to Tom Daschle. "It's conceivable that there's some incidental contact with mail that went through Brentwood," Mr Harlow said.

However, nobody knows for sure whether there has been just one infected letter in Washington, or two, or several.

Similar uncertainty plagued officials in New York, where spores were detected inside Manhattan's largest mail distribution centre, the Morgan processing facility.

Again, it was not clear if this was an after-effect of the letters sent to media outlets including NBC and the New York Post, or whether it came from a separate source. At NBC, where an assistant to news anchor Tom Brokaw came down with an anthrax skin infection, a second suspected case of cutaneous anthrax is being investigated.

The machines at the Morgan processing centre, meanwhile, have been closed for further testing, but the building itself remains open.

The risk of far wider exposure to anthrax first surfaced on Thursday, after a mail worker at the State Department in Washington was diagnosed with respiratory anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease, and a second employee was said to be displaying suspicious symptoms. Since no infected letter or package has been identified, the assumption once again is that contact between State Department mail and machines at the Brentwood processing facility might be to blame.

The State Department mail building has been closed, and all postal services within the department have been halted with the exception of classified dispatches to American embassies overseas.