U.S. health officials say it appears the strain of anthrax that killed a Florida man last week was man-made. The revelation is an important clue as federal investigators try to determine whether the anthrax incident was an unfortunate natural occurrence or a deliberate criminal act, possibly pointing to bioterrorism. Meanwhile, anthrax researchers say much more must be done to protect the American people from any future infections or outbreaks of the disease.
It has been a week since a Florida newspaper worker fell ill from anthrax, and days since a co-worker tested positive for exposure to the bacterium. Hundreds of other newspaper employees have been tested for anthrax exposure and are awaiting results.
But while health officials have few answers to vexing questions, they continue to stress there is no cause for panic. Alina Alsonso of the Palm Beach County Health Department says there is no indication of an anthrax epidemic.
"You need thousands of spores to actually make one sick," she explains. " And there is no reason to believe that that has occurred."
But that is little consolation for co-workers of the man who contracted anthrax and died within days of the diagnosis. Debbie Duckworth was tested for anthrax Monday.
"I am going to wait for [test] results first, and hope nothing is positive [for anthrax]. I do not know," she says. "It is hard to avoid things [that might contain anthrax]. Do you not eat food? Do you not open your mail? I mean, should we not open our bills? Send them back? What do you do?"
Newspaper workers recall receiving a mysterious letter weeks ago containing a powdery substance. And, the timing of the anthrax incident - coming weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington - is perplexing.
Alvin Fox is an anthrax detection researcher at the University of South Carolina and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Microbiological Methods. He says the circumstances of the Florida anthrax occurrence are highly suspicious.
"Anthrax just does not [naturally] infect buildings. It is totally bizarre that two people in the same building would be infected," Mr. Fox says. "It is very hard to imagine how this could happen in a natural situation."
Mr. Fox praises health officials for responding quickly and aggressively when anthrax was first detected last week.
"The measures that health agencies are taking in this country are absolutely correct. But that is not going to solve the problem," he says.
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control is training staff at 50 laboratories across the United States in rapid anthrax diagnosis.
But Mr. Fox says in the event of a massive biological attack, time is of the essence. He says, by the time health officials diagnose anthrax in victims who have fallen ill, it will likely be too late to save their lives - or those of others in whom the bacterium in incubating. He says health officials need additional tools to detect anthrax before people become sick.
"Their focus is on detecting infections when they have occurred in people. What they are not focused on is being able to tell that dying people showing up at hospitals may have been attacked three days earlier. And the point is, with anthrax, you want to be able to treat those people very soon after infection," says Mr. Fox. "If you wait several days, then you have a bunch of dead people. People do not go to their doctors until they are very sick. And that is a problem: by the time they are very sick with anthrax, there is a 90percent chance that they are going to die."
Mr. Fox advocates what he calls "real-time" detection of anthrax. He says biosensors and other instruments should be set up in heavily populated areas across the United States. He says these tools could signal a biological attack as soon as one has occurred, giving health workers precious time to isolate affected populations and administer antibiotics before the anthrax bacterium has a chance to incubate in victims.