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Thursday, 11 October, 2001, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Anthrax source remains a mystery
Investigators at the AMI building in Florida
The building is being methodically checked
The source of an anthrax outbreak at a publishing company in Florida in which three people were infected remains a mystery, US Attorney General John Ashcroft has said.

The matter is now the subject of a criminal investigation, but there is still no evidence of a link to the 11 September attacks, he added.


It is very difficult to think that even an organic, naturally occurring presence in nature would result in a concentration that affected or provided a basis for exposure to three people in a specific building

John Ashcroft
Mr Ashcroft also downplayed reports that the bacteria had originated in a laboratory, saying: "I have absolutely no evidence to indicate that the anthrax in Florida was stolen from any lab, we don't have any ability to announce any source of the anthrax".

One employee at the company died and two others are being treated in hospital after testing positive for exposure to the anthrax, sparking fears throughout America that this could be an act of bioterrorism.

Foul play

Speaking on morning television programmes, Mr Ashcroft said that a criminal investigation had been launched as the authorities suspected foul play.

"It is very difficult to think that even an organic, naturally occurring presence in nature would result in a concentration that affected or provided a basis for exposure to three people in a specific building in that setting and that's the reason we launched the kind of investigation we did," he said.

Anthrax specimen
It is unlikely the anthrax occurred naturally

Investigators wearing protective suits and gas masks have been collecting evidence in the offices of American Media Inc (AMI) in Boca Raton. The building has been ordered closed for 30 days.

"The FBI is going through the building on a methodical basis. Floor by floor, cubicle by cubicle, area by area," said FBI special agent Hector Pesquera.

So far they have not turned up any new traces of anthrax since it was discovered on the computer keyboard of the first victim Robert Stevens, who died on Friday.

Responding to treatment

Ernesto Blanco, who worked in the company's mail room, has been undergoing hospital treatment after a nasal swab revealed that he had also been infected.

"He hopes to be out of hospital in approximately a week. The antibiotics have kicked in and worked magnificently," his daughter-in-law Mary Orth said.


I am getting calls from retailers throughout the United States that our customers are afraid to touch the papers because they're afraid that anthrax can be communicated

David Pecker, AMI's CEO

A third employee, a 35-year-old female worker who has not been identified, also tested positive for the disease.

Her condition is not known, but she has been hospitalised and is being treated with antibiotics.

The authorities have not said that the outbreak is the work of bioterrorists. "This is not a time for premature conclusions and inaccurate reporting," said Mr Pesquera.

Targeted

But David Pecker, the head of AMI, thinks that his company has been targeted.

"I feel that we had a bioterrorist attack here... this is so devastating to me and my company" he said.

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

"The fear and hysteria is incredible... I am getting calls from retailers throughout the United States that our customers are afraid to touch the papers, because they're afraid that anthrax can be communicated," he said.

Mr Ashcroft said that US authorities had now investigated about 30 or more potential anthrax scares around the country, but that they were all false alarms.

"The FBI has been called in over and again along with local authorities. None of these has developed to show there was any problem related to anthrax," he said.

But he has emphasised the need for people to be vigilant.

"I encourage all Americans to have a heightened sense of awareness of their surroundings," he said.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Gavin Hewitt
"Hazardous Material Teams re-enterd the American Media building"
The BBC's Ben Harper
"Buildings have been evacuated, subway systems closed down, and people rushed to hospital for tests"
See also:

09 Oct 01 | Health
Q&A: Anthrax infection
10 Oct 01 | Health
Anthrax: How do you stop it?
10 Oct 01 | Health
Anthrax as a biological weapon
09 Oct 01 | Health
FBI pursues anthrax lead
11 Oct 01 | Americas
Third Florida anthrax case
10 Oct 01 | UK Politics
UK signs pact against bioterrorism
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