Anthrax search grows wider
By Martin Merzer and Ken Moritsugu
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - Scientists worked yesterday to unravel the mystery of how anthrax was spreading through parts of Washington, including Capitol Hill, where the bacteria has been found in 11 locations.
The search for anthrax widened considerably, with thousands of businesses and apartment complexes placed on alert. Health officials advised anyone who processed mail in those locations - which include downtown Washington - to begin taking precautionary antibiotics.
A mail bin at the main post office serving Princeton, N.J., in a preliminary test, showed positive for a small quantity of anthrax, leading state and federal officials to shut down the facility and conduct further tests to determine the scope of the contamination there.
At the same time, the Capitol Hill office of Princeton-area Rep. Rush Holt (D., N.J.) was one of three in the Longworth Congressional Building in Washington that tested positive for traces of anthrax.
By last night, more than 20,000 congressional employees, postal workers and private mail handlers in and near the capital city had been told to take antibiotics, even without submitting to medical screening tests.
Even the nine justices of the Supreme Court were taking doxycycline, an anti-anthrax shield now being recommended under some circumstances as an alternative to Cipro, city health officials said.
"This clearly represents the use of a weapon of mass destruction against the United States of America," said Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.), who learned Friday night that his office was contaminated by traces of anthrax. "It certainly has reinforced my conviction that we're all in this together."
On Capitol Hill, crowds of workers lined up throughout the day to consult with doctors and pick up 60-day doses of doxycycline.
Health officials in Washington said they were switching from Cipro to doxycycline - for people possibly exposed to anthrax but without showing any symptoms of it - because doxycycline has fewer side effects and is equally effective.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.), the apparent main target on Capitol Hill, said he could barely "express how angry I am about these attacks" and urged the nation to brace itself for another wave of bioterrorism.
"We can't know where the next threat will come from or what form it will take," Daschle said. "But we must assume there will be a next time, and we must be prepared."
Anthrax already has killed two postal workers in Washington and one man in South Florida. About 15 others have been infected in those areas and in New Jersey and New York.
But it is the Washington area that has been most shaken by the outbreak.
"All of us are struggling to make sense of this difficult time," Washington Mayor Anthony Williams said yesterday during the funeral for postal worker Joseph Curseen Jr.
Investigators and scientists sought to explain why tiny amounts of the bacteria keep showing up in offices and buildings far from Daschle's office, where a letter contaminated by highly concentrated and deadly anthrax was opened on Oct. 14.
"I would not be surprised if they find anthrax in other offices," said Holt, who was boarding a train for home Friday night when he learned that trace amounts of anthrax were found in his office. "No one knows how spores get around an office building. We're learning as we go."
In the most recent discovery, experts found anthrax spores in three offices on the sixth and seventh floors of the Longworth House Office Building, four blocks from Daschle's office in the Hart Senate Office Building. Those offices belong to Pence, Holt and Rep. John Baldacci (D., Maine).
Anthrax spores also have been found elsewhere in the Hart building, in the Ford House Office Building, in a mailroom at the Central Intelligence Agency, and in remote mailrooms that serve the White House, the Supreme Court and other government operations in or near Washington.
Most experts believe that those trace amounts are the result of "cross-contamination" - incidental contact between the letter sent to Daschle and other letters.
If cross-contamination is responsible, that could suggest that small amounts of the anthrax bacteria also exist on letters delivered to the general population in Washington and elsewhere.
If it is not a factor, other fully contaminated letters might have moved through the system.
"We don't know if we have cross-contamination from the original Sen. Daschle letter or if there is another letter out there that we need to be concerned about," said Dan Nichols, a spokesman for the Capitol Police force. "We are investigating this very aggressively."
Experts said they did not believe that the latest discoveries on Capitol Hill posed a serious threat to anyone.
"We feel quite confident that we will see no cases of anthrax out of the congressmen's offices," said Gregory Martin, an infectious-disease expert at the National Naval Medical Center.
Further complicating the issue, an employee at a remote mail facility for the State Department contracted respiratory anthrax last week, an often lethal variant of the disease that experts do not believe can be transmitted by cross-contaminated mail.
If they are right, that probably means another poisoned letter arrived at the State Department - but none has been found. Results from environmental tests at the department and its mailroom are expected later this week.
A senior law enforcement official who asked not to be named said analysts remained divided over whether the anthrax was being spread by foreign terrorists, possibly in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, or by, as he put it, "Ted Kaczynski with a Ph.D. in microbiology."
Known as the Unabomber, Kaczynski pleaded guilty in 1998 to a nearly 20-year bombing spree.
The FBI and other law enforcement agencies, this official said, are looking for people with advanced degrees in microbiology or a related field, access to well-equipped laboratories and grudges against the news media and the government, or hatred of Jewish people.
Another senior official said the FBI's preliminary analysis of handwriting on the tainted letters suggests they were written by native English speakers, and the spread of anthrax by mail does not fit terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's pattern of large attacks that kill a lot of people at once.
Ken Moritsugu's e-mail address is email@example.com