Anthrax Strikes Pentagon Post Officer

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 5, 2001 (ENS) - Traces of anthrax were confirmed in a Pentagon post office over the weekend, adding another facility to the list of government sites where the potentially deadly spores have been found. President George W. Bush used his weekly radio address on Saturday to discuss the anthrax threat, and try to reassure the American public that their government will protect them.


The Pentagon is still reeling from the terrorist attack of September 11, when a hijackers piloted a commercial jet into the military headquarters (Department of Defense photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collected samples on October 30 at a mailroom located in the commercial concourse of the Pentagon, as part of a routine screening of all facilities that receive mail from the Brentwood mail sorting center. The Brentwood center was closed October 15 after two employees died of inhalation anthrax, and the facility tested positive for anthrax spores.

Two of 17 samples collected at the Pentagon post office tested positive for the spores when the results came in on Saturday. On Sunday, the site was fumigated and retested.

"Retesting results were all negative," said a statement issued by the Pentagon. Today, "all post office box patrons of the Pentagon Concourse Post Office will be screened."

The post office in the commercial area serves military employees at the Defense Department's headquarters, as well as thousands of civilian contractors who visit the concourse's shops. The Defense Department's own mailroom has been tested twice for anthrax, and all results have been negative, the statement said.


Spores of anthrax bacteria (Photo courtesy U.S. Postal Service)
The spores found at the Pentagon post office mark the first time the anthrax attacks have directly affected the U.S. military - the only U.S. population with access to existing supplies of a controversial anthrax vaccine. That vaccine is available only to military personnel sent to a list of areas where anthrax attacks are feared.

Until recently, that list did not include U.S. sites. Health officials are now racing to develop effective vaccines against anthrax, in quantities sufficient to protect millions of American citizens.

This week, the Mayo Clinic and Roche Holding AG will unveil a new DNA test that can detect anthrax spores in less than an hour, rather than the several days now required. The new test is expected to increase the speed and accuracy of anthrax screening in individuals who may have been exposed to the spores.

The DNA test has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But Roche Diagnostics said today they will make the test immediately available to public health agencies, hospital laboratories and reference laboratories in the United States and other countries - initially, at no charge.


Dr. Franklin Cockerill, III, the Mayo Clinic microbiologist who spearheaded the development of a new anthrax DNA test (Photo courtesy Mayo Clinic)
"The first thing people want to know in a case of suspected exposure is whether the agent was in fact anthrax," said Dr. Franklin Cockerill, III, the Mayo Clinic microbiologist who led the development team. "Until now, local labs have been able to quickly determine the presence of a bacterium, but they can't tell whether it is anthrax or not. The current process to identify the presence of anthrax may take several days. The events of the last several weeks require as rapid a response as possible."

The Mayo Clinic has been working with the federal government to make the test formula available to federal agencies that request it. Roche is working with the FDA to determine its requirements for expedited regulatory approval of the new test.

On Saturday, President Bush said he was "proud of the way our law enforcement officers, our health care and postal workers and the American people are responding" to the anthrax threat.

"There's no precedent for this type of biological attack," Bush said. "We are working to protect people based on the best information available."

Bush noted that health officials are learning more about the risks of anthrax spores as their investigation proceeds.


President Bush attempted to reassure the American people during his weekly radio address on Saturday (White House photo by Eric Draper)
"Originally, experts believed the anthrax spores could not escape from sealed envelopes," such as the anthrax laced letters sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, and the New York Post newspaper. "We now know differently, because of cases where postal workers were exposed even though the envelopes they processed were not opened."

The two Brentwood postal workers who died of anthrax were apparently exposed to spores that leaked from the letter sent to Senator Daschle, despite the fact that the letter appeared tightly sealed. Several people who have developed the skin form of anthrax were also apparently exposed to anthrax spores on the external surfaces of mail.

Fears about anthrax tainted mail have shut down mailrooms throughout the Food and Drug Administration building, and other government offices are taking precautions to prevent the potential exposure of mailroom workers. Hundreds of postal workers employed at federal facilities in the nation's capitol are severely mentally or physically disabled, due to special hiring practices that favor disabled persons.

Some of these workers are now being assigned new security responsibilities, and others are being taken off assignments that carry special risks, such as researching the proper destinations for poorly addressed pieces of mail.

Special mail services that benefit military service people have also been disrupted. Military postal officials have reluctantly ended the "Operation Dear Abby" and "Any Service Member" postal programs, which allow supportive letters and care packages to be addressed to anonymous service members stationed overseas.

"Both of these programs create an avenue to introduce mail into the system from unknown sources," said a notice from the Military Postal Service Agency. "The recent mail related attacks have demonstrated the vulnerability of the postal system."