WHITE HOUSE WARNS ON ANTHRAX TESTS
20 Aug 2003
Source: Associated Press, July 19, 2002.
White House Warns on Anthrax Tests
By LAURA MECKLER, Associated Press Writer
In a memo being sent Monday to more than 250 federal agencies and to firefighters, police and local officials across the country, authorities say none of the commercially available field tests are reliable. They advise federal agencies to stop buying them and to cancel any contracts that are pending.
"This equipment does not pass acceptable standards for effectiveness," said the memo from John H. Marburger III, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "Field testing ... is not recommended and should not be used."
The advisory comes after an extensive study of the tests by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the FBI. The study, the first of its kind, found that all tests on the market are prone to miss small amounts of anthrax and to detect anthrax when there was none there.
The memo advises authorities to send results to a CDC-approved lab, where they can get initial readings within six hours. A 17-page set of guidelines offers detailed suggestions for how to handle suspicious mail, warning agencies not to take "dramatic actions" before figuring out whether the threat is credible.
The guidelines also recommend that federal agencies stop routinely testing their mailrooms for anthrax, given that most mail is being irradiated, low levels of anthrax do not pose a significant risk and the tests used are not reliable.
The field tests -- which cost about $35 each -- are designed to quickly determine whether a suspicious white powder could be anthrax, and hundreds of thousands of them were sold during and after last fall's attacks-by-mail.
But false results cause real problems, officials say.
In May, for instance, field tests indicated anthrax in the mailrooms of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The World Bank shut down the ventilation system in the entire building and sent 1,200 workers home because it was too hot to work inside. The IMF gave about 100 people antibiotics, though many held off taking them.
In the end, anthrax was not confirmed at either location.
"Bad information is worse than no information," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, a bioterrorism expert at the University of Minnesota who has been serving as an adviser to HHS.
Still, at the World Bank, there are no regrets.
"The bank will always err on the side of caution," said spokesman Damian Milverton.
Milverson said forcing staff to work from home is "nothing" compared to the risk of ignoring what could actually be anthrax. But he added officials will consider the guidelines.
Field tests are easy to use. A sample of suspicious powder is dissolved into a special fluid and run through a gadget to check for genetic markers from the Bacillus family, which includes anthrax.
But they also pick up other bacteria in the Bacillus family that is not anthrax. And they won't register anthrax if there are fewer than 100,000 spores -- more than enough to kill someone.
The manufacturer of the most popular field test -- Smart Ticket -- responded that it is designed for use only if a visible powder is present. It's not designed to pick up anthrax that is floating invisibly through the air, said Cheryl Trudil, marketing manager of New Horizons of Columbia, Md.
"If you have white powder on your desk and you're scared to death it's anthrax, someone can come and in 15 minutes tell you it's not anthrax," she said.
But administration officials say that even with a powder, the test could miss a small amount of anthrax if it were mixed with other material.
Trudil allows that the test produces some "false positives," but said that it's no big deal because the truth will come out when further testing is done in the lab. Without the field test, local officials would have to assume that all suspicious powders are anthrax and send them to the lab, which would cause severe backups, she said.
Administration officials said the FBI looked at lab capacity and determined that it was sufficient to handle the demand.