Taking anthrax seriously

Capitol threat: Police hunt and public health precautions must protect and reassure.

October 18, 2001

THE ATTACK on this nation's morale and institutions by letter bio-bomb reached a higher level at the U.S. Capitol.

The threat must be respected. It is being dealt with in a serious manner to preserve the confidence of the American people.

The anthrax spores in the Capitol were found to have been refined for potency and to have infected the ventilation system of buildings connected to Congress.

That suggested expertise and access to specialized facilities beyond what was exhibited at four locations previously known to have received contaminated mail.

This is classic terrorism in that news of the event spreads suggestion and fear to curtail normal life far beyond the damage physically done.

Shutting even part of the Capitol for screening, and news of spores found in the Manhattan office of New York Gov. George Pataki, accomplish that.

Even in Baltimore, threats of an "anthrax attack" were taken more seriously yesterday.

The first clues to the identities of the senders in the New York and Washington cases lie in similarities of letters sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. Their comments in the same handwriting could tip a link to al-Qaida terrorists, or be an effort to mislead.

While the FBI takes on added tasks, the public health dimension puts Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in command of a war that is not the one for which he was appointed.

His initial request for $1.5 billion to increase emergency medicine stockpiles is reassuring. Pressure is mounting on Bayer AG, the German manufacturer of the drug Cipro, to allow generic or licensed manufacture. Bayer says it has tripled production.

The medical harm done as of yesterday was one death and one person ill from inhaled anthrax, and one adult and one baby being treated for skin infections. Ordinary Americans are in potential danger from anthrax infection but greater actual danger of getting hit by a car while crossing the street.

The sending of contaminated letters, or hoaxes, is a serious crimes against all. The American people now face another danger from malefactors of unknown intention.

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