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Last Updated

08 Dec 2002

Source: Baltimore Sun, December 8, 2002.

Anthrax attacks set off a frenzy of invention

Mail screeners, sterilizers, test kits among devices

Knight Ridder/tribune

PHILADELPHIA - Fueled by unrelenting coverage of last year's anthrax attacks, David O'Neal of Marlton, N.J., wanted to become part of the solution.

One late night last fall, it came to him: the ClearView Mailbox. Resembling an incubator the shape of a log cabin, the transparent container allows users to sort through the enclosed mail using attached rubber gloves.

"We are just about ready to go into mass production," O'Neal said.

The investigations into the anthrax attacks that killed five people last fall have yet to yield an arrest. Much more fruitful has been the invention blitz set off by a heightened sense of the nation's vulnerability to biological terrorism.

"We are talking about the equivalent of a space program," said John W. Caldwell, an attorney for Woodcock Washburn, an intellectual-property law firm in Philadelphia. "It's a big, big thing. Fortunately, we are not fighting gravity."

Synthetic blood. Cutting-edge pharmaceuticals. Million-dollar mail sorters. Do-it-yourself test kits.

From the inventor next door and from Fortune 500 companies, scores of products inspired by the four anthrax-laced letters sent from Trenton, N.J., last year are available or in development.

Take Prime Alert, also called the Hoax Buster.

The Spokane, Wash., company that developed the device specialized in testing dairy products and fermented alcohol for bacteria until its officials got the call to duty.

"Here we are drinking beer and eating cheese," GenPrime product manager Darby McLean said, when they were approached by their U.S. representative, George R. Nethercutt, a Republican on the House Science Committee.

He asked GenPrime to use its food-inspection technology to create a quick test for bioterrorism agents. A few months later, the Hoax Buster was born.

Combine the suspect substance with a test formula provided in 10 vials and pour the solution into a handheld detector. Thirty seconds later, the customer knows whether he has mere baking powder or a big problem. Price: $7,500.

Because using the Prime Alert requires handling potentially dangerous material, the product is marketed to hazardous-materials teams and fire departments.

For the corporate client, there is the Mail Defender, a desktop device that can sterilize mail without making it crisp or brittle, a common complaint among federal government workers handling irradiated mail.

By applying moisture, the Defender can expand the molecular structure of anthrax and other deadly bacteria. Then, in a process that resembles the cycle of a clothes dryer, contaminants are heated and destroyed. Price: $10,000.

"This system that we are selling will be able to clean anywhere between 10 and 20 pounds of mail at a time," said Michael Guevremont, vice president of Virginia-based Executive Protection Systems.

For significantly more cash, defense giants Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin offer competing large-scale mail processors for government use.

Lockheed's BioMailSolutions was introduced in January. It combines high-tech sorting capabilities with detection technologies similar to what weapons inspectors are using in Iraq. Price: up to $1 million, with optional equipment that ranges from $20,000 to $200,000.

"Some of this technology was developed for a battlefield environment," said Cynthia Sailar, vice president for Lockheed's Distribution Technologies.

Keeping mail safe is only part of the response to the anthrax attacks. Since then, the number of care options for biological terrorism victims has exploded.

GlaxoSmithKline, which has its U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia, is working with the federal Food and Drug Administration for approval of two antibiotics - Amoxil and Augmentin - to treat anthrax. The company is also said to be in acquisition talks with Bayer AG, makers of Cipro, the anthrax-killing antibiotic.

Also up for FDA approval is a "blood substitute" produced by Biopure in Cambridge, Mass. The firm's chief executive officer told Congress this year that the saline and cow blood compound could be used in case a wide-scale bioterror attack reduced the number of potential blood donors.