Wednesday, March 23, 2005

UPI--Anthrax Found In Pentagon Mail Samples

WASHINGTON - Anthrax has been confirmed in samples collected from the two Pentagon mail facilities that were at first closed last week and then declared free of the pathogen, United Press International has learned.

The head of the company that was accused of contaminating the samples sent from those facilities -- a detached building on the Pentagon grounds in Arlington, Va., and the other in Falls Church, Va. -- said the presence of anthrax was detected independently by two government laboratories.

Robert B. Harris, president and chief executive officer of Commonwealth Biotechnologies Inc. in Richmond, Va., also said the anthrax found was the same genetic strain used in the 2001 attacks.

The dispute over the possibility of contamination -- suggested to the media by an anonymous source -- became more heated as an automated alarm warned of anthrax at yet a third Washington-area mail room Friday. That third alert, at Bolling Air Force Base, was triggered by automated sensors -- as were the alerts earlier in the week at the two other facilities.

The week of anthrax alarms began when the Pentagon mail facility was closed March 14, after tests on samples taken there the week before had been found positive for the presence of anthrax. The initial samples, consisting of swabs of surfaces from the facility, had been collected March 10, but the results were not received and the facility was not shut down until March 14.

The delay was not the fault of CBI, Harris said, noting CBI had tested more than 2,000 similar samples in the past two years and reported its results within 24 hours.

"We reported our initial ...findings on (March 11)," Harris told UPI. "Our contracting officer told us to continue testing for further analysis over the weekend -- and that was done. On Monday ... the 14th we communicated additional test results to our contracting officer. From CBI's point of view, there was absolutely no delay in reporting the results."

CBI is a sub-contractor that conducts routine testing. The identity of the prime contractor who received the results is unclear. Defense Department spokesman Glenn Flood told UPI the four-day delay was being investigated.

Harris also took issue with the anonymous suggestion in news reports that his lab had contaminated the original sample from the Pentagon site.

"It is a fact that we had a presumptive positive test come up," he said. "That presumptive positive test was confirmed by us and by at least two other labs as being a true positive."

Carlee Vander Linden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., which tested the samples after CBI, confirmed that the follow-up tests on the first sample were positive and that two labs had done such tests.

"There is a component of the Homeland Security Department that has a laboratory that is located in our building," Vander Linden explained. "They have a presence here at Fort Detrick. The samples were basically parted out and there was analysis done by USAMRIID and by the forensics lab under DHS. I know that the negatives that we got were on the ones that came directly from the (mail) facility and did not pass through the contractor. The positives that we got were on samples that had been handled already by the people in Virginia."

Vander Linden also said: "USAMRIID is not saying that, 'Gee, there probably was a contamination event.' I think some people are surmising that. It certainly has been reported that way. I think that we'll just have to wait and see."

A DHS lab did conduct confirmatory tests, said Terry Bishop, a spokesman for DOD Health Affairs, but he did elaborate on the results.

"It is in our mind that this was truly a positive sample," said Harris, adding that his technicians had done everything possible to minimize contamination and were reviewing their lab and procedures.

"I emphasize," Harris said, "in over 2,000 of these samples and tens of thousands ... of other samples we have never experienced a false-positive test."

In response to a question from UPI, Harris confirmed CBI also had conducted other tests on the anthrax sample, but he would not reveal the results.

"There are lots of tests -- biochemical, morphological, genetic," Harris said, "all kinds of laboratory analyses that can be done to further qualify the type of pathogen we are looking at and those tests have been done."

Harris also said the anthrax in the initial samples was the same strain as the organism used during the first anthrax attack via U.S. Mail facilities in the fall of 2001. This was not surprising, however, he said, because it is the most common strain.

Questions over the first alarm were still swirling when the third alarm sounded last Friday at Bolling, which is located along the Anacostia River in Washington, in a mail-handling facility used by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

"This morning, the DIA remote-delivery facility was closed due to an initial positive test of incoming mail for hazardous biological agents," Defense Department spokesman Maj. Paul Swiergosz told UPI last Friday afternoon.

Personnel on the scene were asked to stay, Swiergosz said, and local officials were called. An FBI team conducted further tests.

As of late Friday, the follow-up tests at the scene had been negative, said FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman. Additional tests were planned at a laboratory.

The Bolling alert and the Pentagon closing were two of three anthrax-related events last week. The third, an alert in a mail room of a Defense Department complex of leased offices in Falls Church, delayed the departure of hundreds of people for hours and closed the offices for several days.

The week's events raised concern about cross-contamination from a source of anthrax somewhere in the Defense Department mail system. All of the alerts occurred in defense-related mail facilities and in each case the alerts were specific for anthrax, several federal and local DOD spokesmen confirmed during the week.

The bioweapons sensors were not connected, UPI was told repeatedly by the spokesmen. The sensors in Fairfax and at Bolling were automatic and did not involve any CBI testing.

UPI also was told by a Defense Department spokeswoman that, in at least one case, the alerts followed the mail flow. Specifically, the mail from the Pentagon site could have moved to the Falls Church location.

The Pentagon is working to gather more than 8,000 pieces of mail that moved through its detached facility between March 10 and March 14.
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