October 10, 2001
Experts suggest criminal connection in anthrax cases
By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON — It was 2-1 in favor of a criminal or terrorist explanation for two anthrax cases in Florida when Sen. Edward Kennedy asked three bioterrorism experts for their opinion Tuesday.
While he was chairing a hearing on bioterrorism, Kennedy, D-Mass., asked the experts whether they thought the two cases resulted from anthrax that was naturally present or planted by a terrorist.
Robert Stevens, 63, a photo editor at The Sun tabloid newspaper, died from anthrax in Florida on Friday, while a mailroom employee at the same American Media office in Boca Raton had a sample of the deadly bacteria detected in a swab from his nasal passages. Authorities said that anthrax spores had been found on Stevens’ computer keyboard.
“There is in fact something that happened there,” said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who doubts there is a natural explanation. “Someone was able to put it (anthrax) into a position where it did what it did.”
Mohammad N. Akhter, a physician who serves as executive director of the American Public Health Association, agreed.
“Somebody did something that was criminal, wrong,” he said. Akhter raised the specter that a third or fourth person will be discovered to be infected.
A third panelist who testified before the senators was skeptical that a terrorist was responsible. Anthrax infections are rare in the United States, but it is possible to come into contact with the bacteria by inhaling spores released from dead animals.
“I’m reluctant at this time to say it was caused by terrorists,” said Donald A. Henderson, a physician who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies.
He believes it was “strange” that the second man, Ernesto Blanco, 73, has not contracted the disease even though traces of the bacteria were found in his nasal passages.
One possibility, Henderson said, is that anthrax from the man who died contaminated another sample in the laboratory, giving a false positive result for the second man.
Another scenario is that more people may die from naturally occurring anthrax than the medical community knows, meaning the man’s death would not be as unusual as it seems, he said. It’s also possible, he added, that a form of anthrax is present in many people’s nasal passages and that this is not known because nasal swabs are not commonly taken.