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Wednesday, 17 October, 2001, 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK
Anthrax is 'weapons grade'
New York City police officer sprays a mailbox after taking out mail
Officials say the anthrax was refined for use as a weapon
US officials said on Wednesday that the form of anthrax found in a letter to Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle appeared to be one of its most 'potent' forms and most likely the work of experts.

Mr Daschle said FBI investigators had concluded that the anthrax strain was "a very potent form of anthrax that clearly was produced by someone who knew what he or she was doing".

We were told that it was a very strong form of anthrax... that clearly was produced by somebody who knew what he or she was doing

Tom Daschle
Senate Majority Leader
US Government sources added that preliminary testing had indicated the contaminated powder to be refined enough to disperse easily through the air, increasing its potential as a deadly weapon.

More than 20 people in Mr Daschle's office have now reportedly tested positive for exposure to anthrax.

The FBI has said that the handwriting was the same on the letter sent to Mr Daschle and another sent to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw.

They both contained the messages "Death to America" and "God is great".

Potential sources

Investigators say there are hints but no hard evidence as to where the anthrax could have come from.

Countries with anthrax stocks
North Korea
South Korea
However the Michael Powers of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute said that the sophistication of the strain found suggested "high level" involvement.

"Usually to produce that quality of anthrax requires a fairly high level of technological sophistication, which to my mind indicates some sort of state sponsorship," he said.

White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said that the anthrax could not have come from America itself as US supplies of the bacteria were destroyed as part of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.

However at least ten other countries may have access to such biological agents, including Iraq and Iran.

Terrorists could also have obtained access to the bacteria via the many global laboratories that stock it for research purposes.

Fighting bioterrorism

Meanwhile, the newly-appointed US Homeland Security chief, Tom Ridge, has said fighting bioterrorism will be the main priority of the Bush administration in the coming weeks.

Interviewed by Mr Brokaw on America's NBC television network, Mr Ridge said there was not yet "credible evidence" to link the anthrax attacks to Saudi-born militant Osama Bin Laden, "but... we ought to operate under the presumption that it is".

He said the government was boosting its reserves of anthrax antibiotics and smallpox vaccine.

Earlier, FBI Director Robert Mueller said authorities had found no direct link with "organised terrorism" but had not ruled it out.

Hoaxers warned

The FBI says it has received more than 2,300 reports of suspected cases of anthrax since 1 October, including a spate of hoaxes.

Investigators found similarities in handwriting on the envelopes containing anthrax
US Attorney General John Ashcroft hit out at the perpetrators of phoney scares, warning culprits would be prosecuted.

"They create illegitimate alarm in a time of legitimate concern," he said.

In Florida, a 33-year-old Lee County Jail inmate faces up to 75 years in prison and a $50,000 fine after being charged with sending out letters claiming to contain anthrax spores.

Convicted robber Colin Perry is accused of writing five letters containing a white powdery substance and warning the recipients they were now infected by anthrax.

Strains of anthrax
Respiratory: Similar beginnings to flu but shock occurs between two and six days later - frequently fatal
Intestinal: Severe food poisoning type symptoms - up to 50% mortality
Cutaneous: Rarely painful skin lesion - fatal in one in 20 cases
Two men in Connecticut were also formally indicted on Tuesday on charges of making false anthrax threats.

CNN reported that Frederick Forcellina allegedly threatened to use a weapon of mass destruction in three Connecticut towns.

Earlier on Tuesday Mr Ashcroft said that another man, Joseph Faryniarz, was charged with making false statements connected to a scare in the state's Department of Health and Protection.

The BBC's Robert Hall
"The US government has now made the fight against bio-terrorism their top priority"
The BBC's Tom Heap
"Fears of bio-terrorism are spreading around the world"
John Eldrige, editor of Jane's NBC Defence
"'Military strain' is a slightly vague term"
See also:

16 Oct 01 | Americas
Tracking the anthrax spore
15 Oct 01 | World
Anthrax fears shake world
15 Oct 01 | Health
Q&A: Anthrax
10 Oct 01 | Health
Anthrax: How do you stop it?
16 Oct 01 | Europe
Anthrax alerts across Europe
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