DNA tests negative for anthrax

Post offices reopening

experts say scare reveals flaw in defense procedure

November 08, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Postal officials began reopening 11 Washington-area post offices last night after an anthrax scare at a Navy mail facility turned out to be a false alarm.

DNA tests at the Naval Medical Research Center on 20 samples taken from the Navy's Consolidated Mail Facility in southwest Washington were negative for anthrax bacteria, said Navy Lt. John Schofield, spokesman for the research center in Silver Spring.

Postal officials said the V Street mail processing center would open last night and 10 post offices closed Thursday would open on their regular schedule today.

But experts said the handling of the episode revealed serious flaws in biodefense procedures devised after anthrax-laced letters killed five people and sickened at least 17 more in 2001.

"Obviously, in my opinion it could have been handled more quickly and more definitively," said Charles Schable, director of bioterrorism preparedness and response at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The scare began Wednesday about 5 p.m. when a routine test on a bundle of mail received by the naval mail facility produced a positive reading for anthrax.

The biodetection equipment draws air off bundles of mail and looks for anthrax DNA using a test called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, said Lt. Cmdr. Edward Zeigler, spokesman for Naval District Washington.

Workers with the Shaw Group, the contractor hired by the Navy to run the mail testing unit, repeated the PCR test and got a second positive result.

To confirm the finding on a different testing machine, the company took eight more samples to Fort Detrick in Frederick. But the samples didn't go to the nation's top biodefense experts at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Instead, Shaw Group workers used the company's portable test unit at Fort Detrick's Area B, a dump that Shaw Group has been hired to clean up.

Of the eight samples tested at Shaw's unit, seven came up negative and one tested positive. Based on that finding, the U.S. Postal Service shut down the 11 "upstream" mail facilities that might have been the source of suspected anthrax reaching the Navy mail building.

Schable, of the CDC, said the tests to confirm the original positives should not have been performed by a contractor but by the CDC's Laboratory Response Network, a nationwide web of labs that use standard procedures for bioterrorism testing.

Schable also said a report Thursday from Navy officials that Shaw's test at Fort Detrick had detected "138 spores" of anthrax was mistaken. In fact, 138 was the readout on the machine and not a spore count. A clear finding of anthrax would have produced a reading "in the thousands," he said.

A Shaw Group spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment.

William Nelson, a former Navy scientist and now president of Tetracore, a maker of anthrax test equipment in Gaithersburg, said the government should set up better procedures to make sure high-quality tests are performed before costly and disruptive shutdowns are imposed.

"A PCR test is fairly easy to do," he said. "But an inexperienced person can misread it."

Nelson said air samplers to detect bioterror attacks are being set up in scores of locations around the country, including post offices, airports, military bases and large office buildings. But if initial positive tests are read by inexperienced people, more disruptive scares are likely, he said.

He suggested that the federal government set up a hot line for review of positive tests for bioterror agents, manned 24 hours a day by a rotation of experts.

"What this shows is that testing is expanding so rapidly that the system isn't set up to handle the results," Nelson said.

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