Thirty-one employees of the US Senate tested positive for exposure to a highly concentrated form of anthrax, officials said, prompting congressional leaders to order an unprecedented shutdown of some of their offices.
In New York, State Governor George Pataki said yesterday that anthrax had been found in his Manhattan office, the third time the dangerous germ has turned up in the city since it killed a British-born picture editor at a tabloid newspaper in Florida on October 5.
Officials said last night that preliminary tests show that the anthrax sent to the New York office of NBC news and to the newspaper in Florida were the same strain, and that the FBI was pursuing "substantive leads" in the investigation into who may have sent the bacteria.
There was no evidence so far of foreign terrorist involvement in the anthrax attacks, law enforcement and other US officials said.
In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told reporters yesterday that 31 people "had positive nasal swabs", indicating exposure to anthrax, after an anthrax-spiked letter was opened in his suite earlier this week.
The group included 23 members of his own staff, five law enforcement personnel, and three aides to Senator Russell Feingold, whose office adjoins Daschle’s at a building across the street from Washington’s domed Capitol building.
Hundreds of people in Washington lined up nervously to be tested. House leaders shut down operations through the weekend to allow for extensive testing, and the Senate also announced plans to close all three of its sprawling office buildings.
"To ensure safety, we thought it best to do a complete sweep, an environmental sweep," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt added: "We’re in a battle with terrorism, a new form of human warfare."
In New York, Pataki shut down his Manhattan office after an initial test detected the presence of anthrax. The governor announced that about 80 employees had been evacuated.
"The odds are very high" that subsequent testing will confirm the presence of the bacteria, he said, although thus far, no one had become sick.
A suspicious letter prompted Pataki to order testing, but he said he didn’t think the package is the source. Instead, he suggested the bacteria could have been tracked in by state police who have accompanied him to anthrax investigations at two news networks.
An assistant to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and a seven-month-old baby of an ABC news employee in New York were found to have contracted the disease.
"The state police have been obviously at NBC, at ABC, all over the environs over the course of the past month," Pataki said.
Dr David Fleming of the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said the anthrax mailed to NBC appeared to match a strain discovered at the Florida tabloid publisher earlier this month.
The strain occurs naturally and responds well to antibiotics, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.
Matching strains do not necessarily mean the anthrax came from the same source. More tests would be needed to confirm that.
Dr Fleming said it is not yet clear whether the Washington anthrax comes from the same strain. But he also stressed there’s no evidence that the Washington anthrax is any more virulent any more dangerous than the strains in New York or Florida.
Separately, a law enforcement official said the letters sent to the offices of Brokaw and Daschle both contained the messages: "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great." The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Washington, congressional officials worked aggressively to ease public concern. Officials said the strain found there responds readily to a range of antibiotics.
"There is no evidence... absolutely no evidence of infection at this point," Daschle said, words that several other officials echoed throughout the day.
Three government officials said yesterday there was no evidence of any foreign or terrorist involvement in the powder contained in the letter to Daschle, although they continue to investigate that possibility. One official said there was evidence that could point toward a domestic culprit.
Dr Rema Khabbez of the CDC said that a "couple of thousand" people in all had been tested since Monday. Of the results in hand, she said there were 31 positive for exposure and 155 negative.
The CDC’s Dr Fleming said it was possible more people in Washington were found to be exposed than elsewhere because health workers began testing very shortly after the letter was opened in Daschle’s office. Testing in New York and Florida did not occur for days or weeks after people were exposed, he said.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts provided fresh details of the episode in Daschle’s office on Monday.
He said a staff aide picked up a piece of mail that had been taped on all four sides, and cut it open. "And cutting, the end falls off, a little bit of powder comes out, falls to the desk, and there’s a note in it."
He added, "The note says, ‘You’ve been exposed to anthrax. You’re going to die. And she drops the whole thing on the ground, other people congregate, and that’s how they also were exposed."