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Wednesday, 19 December, 2001, 15:19 GMT
Anthrax: The story so far
Decontaminating the Hart Senate building
Trace amounts of anthrax remain in the Senate
As Washington cleans up after the anthrax outbreak and attempts to pre-empt further infection, the BBC's Tim Franks in Washington reflects that the authorities may be too embarrassed to identify the culprit.

The authorities in Washington DC have decided to offer vaccinations against anthrax.


We'd have to find 10,000 volunteers to line up ... while a doctor stuck a tube down into the lungs and blew the anthrax in there, and ... fly them to Pango Pango so they could avoid any medical intervention, and then yes, we could kill 10,000 people

Ex-army officer on overblown anthrax fears
Thousands of people there - Congressional staff and postal workers - have over the last two months been taking antibiotics.

But now those antibiotic courses have finished it is thought there might still be a risk posed by the anthrax spores.

At the same time there are signs of progress in the FBI investigation into the origins of the contaminated letters which have left five people dead.

Moving on

Back in October, two anthrax-laden letters were sent to two senators. The contamination is blamed for four deaths. One major Congressional building remains closed; half of America's Senators are still camping out while the rooms are fumigated.

Leading the clean-up is Richard Rupert from the Environmental Protection Agency. He told me that once the chlorine dioxide has done its work, Senate staffers should have no fear.

"I'd feel confident to bring my family in here. I've got three girls, and I'd bring them and my wife in here and not have a second thought about it."

For many, though, there will be second thoughts.

Reassurances

The talk was, when the second letter to Senator Patrick Leahy was opened by investigators just over a week ago, that it contained enough highly refined anthrax to kill 10,000 people.


There's security measures that need to be improved in labs across the country. Things as simple as locks on refrigerators, key cards for access into the facilities

Biological weapons expert

Enter, via the internet, the man who has become the unofficial commander-in-chief against bio-terror nervousness.

Red Thomas is a retired army officer living in Mesa Arizona. He wrote what has become the definitive article on the internet preaching against overblown fears.

There is only one way, says Mr Thomas, to take out 10,000 people with one dirty letter:

"We'd have to find 10,000 volunteers to line up and lay down on a big metal table while a doctor stuck a tube down into the lungs and blew the anthrax in there, and then we'd get all 10,000 of them and fly them to Pango Pango so they could avoid any medical intervention, and then yes, we could kill 10,000 people."

Clearly, though, the best way to reassure Americans that all is under control would be to arrest the culprit.

An insider?

For five weeks now, the FBI has been working openly on the premise that the terrorist is home-grown.

Last week it was acknowledged that the US military has in recent years been making weaponised anthrax, of a type that matches the anthrax used to lace the lethal letters.

The entrance to the US army's Dugway Proving Ground in the middle of Rush Valley in Utah
The investigation is now centring on an army installation
I'm told the FBI is now centring its investigations on just four or five laboratories that received anthrax from the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

The first person to push the theory that the terrorist is a government-related insider is the biological weapons expert, Professor Barbara Hatch Rosenberg.

"The weaponised anthrax is made by a highly secret process belonging to the United States, and the material seems to fit that recipe. Their best lead at present is the contractor that worked for the CIA."

The CIA, for its part, has now dryly declared that it has accounted for all of its anthrax.

Open house

But maybe one of the most startling revelations of this whole affair has been how imprecise a list there is of which labs have had access to which noxious organism.

And - according to Scott Becker, head of the Association of Public Health Laboratories - how it has been all too easy to get hold of a vial or two of anthrax.

"There's security measures that need to be improved in labs across the country. Things as simple as locks on refrigerators, key cards for access into the facilities."

When I put it to Mr Becker that a lot of listeners would probably be astonished to learn you get padlocks on stationery cupboards but, not necessarily as a matter of course, padlocks on refrigerators that have lethal organisms in them, he admitted that "We certainly share that concern."

But he countered that: "The scientific community has been a very collegial community, and scientists work very well together. You know who's working on what organisms around."

Or not - at least in this case. The hope is that the anthrax terrorist has made his point and will not attack again. But the fear that the authorities have to confront is that his identity could prove to be a severe embarrassment.

See also:

19 Dec 01 | Americas
US offers anthrax vaccine
17 Dec 01 | Americas
Army denies anthrax attack link
22 Oct 01 | Health
Warning over anthrax antibiotic
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