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October 15, 2001
Volume 79, Number 42
CENEAR 79 42 p. 9
ISSN 0009-2347
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Florida Anthrax Outbreak: Natural Or Intentional?


It's too early to say whether the anthrax that killed a Florida tabloid photo editor and infected two coworkers was naturally occurring or an intentional act, experts tell C&EN. U.S. prosecutors are now conducting a criminal investigation but say they have no evidence linking this outbreak to the terrorist events of Sept. 11.

"However the anthrax was dispersed, whether deliberately or naturally, it was done very ineffectually," says Raymond A. Zilinskas, senior scientist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "Until the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention carries out its classical and molecular epidemiological studies, it's premature to make statements as to the etiology of the anthrax or how it got to Florida."

Without autopsy results, it is not even certain that the man died from inhalation anthrax, as has been widely reported. Inhalation anthrax is the deadliest and rarest form of the disease, and only 18 people have contracted it in the U.S. since 1900. Peter C. B. Turnbull, an anthrax expert at the U.K. defense establishment at Porton Down, cautions that the pulmonary edema taken as a sign of inhalation anthrax may have been part of generalized edema present when the editor checked himself into the hospital late in the course of the disease.

"There are too many missing pieces in this puzzle, and it's too early to conclude whether the cause was a natural occurrence or foul play," says Harvard University professor of molecular biology and biological weapons expert Matthew S. Meselson. He hopes that "every test is being performed in at least two labs to avoid contamination and error."

Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson says the same strain of anthrax was recovered from the three people and a computer keyboard. Additional tests will determine whether this is the virulent Ames strain isolated from an infected Iowa cow in the 1950s. "It's bad news" if it turns out to be the Ames strain, says Bill Patrick, who headed the U.S. bioweapons program before it was terminated in 1969. "Ames is perhaps a bit more virulent than the [Vollum 1B] strain the U.S. weaponized."

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