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Last Updated

22 Nov 2004

Source:  Republican-American (Waterbury, CT), November 21, 2004.

Anthrax Revisited

Life back to normal in Oxford despite continuing probe into woman's death

By Brynn Mandel

OXFORD. Three years after 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren (case 23) died in the country's first bioterrorism attack, her death remains this former farming community's only unsolved homicide.

In her absence -- and that of a publicly identified culprit in the events that killed five and sickened 17 others -- life has pushed on.

The supermarket tabloid company's office where the first anthrax-tainted letter surfaced in 2001 still publishes, only now out of new headquarters.

Mail flows freely to government agencies on Capitol Hill, but gets a dose of radiation before being delivered.

Around the bedroom community where Lundgren lived, her death -- and the onslaught of worry and media attention it brought -- seldom creeps into conversation.

The return to normality, and absence of biological attacks since, has allowed the fear that paralyzed mail customers and government alike to slip from the public psyche.

Meanwhile, the government has adopted new measures to thwart, or at least cope with, bioterror attacks. The medical and scientific community has learned more about how anthrax affects people, and state health networks have refined systems to detect suspicious outbreaks.

To bioterrorism experts, it makes sense the hysteria over anthrax faded because there is little the public can do aside from making sure the government is prepared.

"The 2001 anthrax postal attacks were a shock to the American system in that they demonstrated both lack of coordination of federal response agencies and the way in which a biological agent like anthrax could promote fear," Jeanne Guillemin, a senior fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program and Boston College sociology professor, said in a recent e-mail interview. "There is a limit to how long the public can sustain a high pitch of anxiety about it, especially when a feared, community-wide attack fails to occur."

For a Woodbury relative, sadness

Shirley Davis hasn't forgotten the events of three years ago.

Davis, Lundgren's niece, thinks of her late aunt often.

"I'm very sad," said Davis, lamenting that her aunt who lived into her mid-90s probably had a few more good years left. "She was a lovely, vibrant woman."

Davis takes comfort in the memorial infectious diseases education program Griffin Hospital named after Lundgren. The Derby hospital is where Lundgren was taken when she began feeling ill in November 2001. It was there physicians first identified the rod-shaped bacteria indicative of the deadly anthrax.

Health officials theorized that junk mail likely carried the deadly bacteria to Lundgren. Some of her junk mail passed through the same Trenton, N.J., postal center that handled anthrax-tainted letters sent to U.S. senators Tom Daschle, D- S.D., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Lundgren habitually tore her junk mail before discarding it, an action health officials said could have sent enough anthrax spores airborne and into her lungs to infect her.

In the past three years, the FBI has interviewed 6,000 people. While a handful of scientists have complained of sullied reputations as a result of investigation leaks, no charges have been filed.

Thirty-one FBI special agents work the case full time, said Debra Weierman, an FBI field office spokeswoman in Washington. That's in addition to 13 postal inspectors, one U.S. attorney and a scattering of support staff.

"This is the type of case the likes of which we've never had," Weierman said when asked why, three years later, the case remains unsolved. "Make no mistake, it is being intensely investigated."

Through October, the FBI conducted 48 searches, some of higher profile than others.

Bioterror expert Steven Hatfill, called a "person of interest" by Attorney General John Ashcroft, won a small victory last month in a lawsuit that claims officials named him to deflect attention from their inability to find the perpetrator, according to the Associated Press. Other reported activities included a search of property belonging to Kenneth Berry, a Fairfield University graduate and bioterrorism response expert, and interviews with Ayaad Assaad, a former Fort Detrick biological defense researcher.

Leonard Cole, a Rutgers University political science professor, authored a book illuminating a series of unconnected dots, as he calls them, that he believes merit more attention than the FBI has devoted to possible Al Queda involvement.

An FBI profile of the anthrax sender concluded "it is highly probable, bordering on certainty" that the letters were penned by the same person and suggests a loner with scientific knowledge and a grudge.

"Given all that I know of the investigation of U.S. labs and U.S. scientists ... I have to beleive that a disproportionate amount (of FBI resources) went to look at domestic possibilities," said Cole, who thinks it will take luck, as in the Unabomber case, for authorities to nab the perpetrator.

The FBI would not comment on whether a lone domestic suspect was the agency's primary theory.

Securing the mail

By the end of next year, every piece of first class mail will pass through a biohazard detection system the United States Postal Service is installing at all 283 mail processing facilities, places that act as clearinghouses for letters.

The technology uses DNA matching to detect anthrax, said postal spokesman Paul Harrington. It currently seeks only anthrax, but can -- and will likely -- be expanded to identify other biohazards, said Harrington.

Since 2001, the postal service has spent nearly $1 billion on emergency preparedness and the fallout from the anthrax and Sept. 11 attacks.

Since April, the new anthrax-detecting technology has run in excess of 80,000 tests and screened more than 2.7 billion pieces of mail.

"All with no false positive results. This technology and machinery is remarkably reliable," said Harrington, adding: "This is a matter of life and death and we feel an obligation to develop the technology and bring this type of protection (to the mail)."

Protecting the public

In July, President Bush signed Project BioShield legislation, which authorized $5.6 billion over the next decade to stockpile bioterrorism prophylaxes.

Announcing the first major purchase of 75 million doses of anthrax vaccine for stockpiling, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson this month said: "The intentional release of anthrax spores is one of the most significant biological threats we face."

A spokeswoman for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who introduced the first version of BioShield, categorized acquiring the preventive treatments as the biggest obstacle to overcome. With Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Lieberman plans to introduce BioShield II this congressional session. The goal, said Lieberman's spokeswoman, is to energize the biodefense industry with incentives to research and develop drugs.

Experts concurred the country is better prepared, in large part as a result of heightened awareness the anthrax case precipitated.

"On the level of detecting a suspicious outbreak, the nation would be better warned. But in terms of infrastructure and how antibiotics or vaccines would be distributed, we still have a long way to go," said Jeanne Guillemin, the MIT Security Studies fellow and author of a book about the 1979 inhalation anthrax outbreak that killed 66 Soviets.

Since many people do not receive regular health care, it's tough to cover all loopholes, she said."There have been a lot of changes in the local infrastructures and the response," said Jacqueline Cattani, director of the University of South Florida's Center for Biological Defense. "I think we're in much better shape. We're not equally across the country in better shape."

But Cattani said likely targets, mainly major cities, "have made great strides."

Still seems surreal

News crews prowled David McKane's house on Thanksgiving three years ago. The events left an unforgettable impression on the Oxford selectman. But he hardly ever hears talk around town about the time when people in bubble suits searched places the nonagenarian frequented.

Douglas Mosher lived next door to Lundgren for three decades.

"I work in my yard a lot. When I look at her house, I can't help but think of her," said Mosher, who took the antibiotic Cipro in 2001 as a precaution because he had visited Lundgren around the time she fell ill. "It happened here. But I think for a lot of people, it's just out of sight, out of mind."

Still, it seems surreal when, a few times yearly, Mosher sees his former neighbor's petite snowy-haired likeness on the evening news when developments in the case are reported.

Mosher said neither he nor neighbors feel at all uneasy given what happened on their quiet street. "I saw how many times the FBI and the CDC came here and vacuumed the surroundings and the house."