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Last Updated

12 Nov 2002

Source: Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2001.


Canadian Officials Did Research On Anthrax Before U.S. Attacks


ATLANTA -- Canadian defense officials knew several months before the U.S. anthrax attacks that unopened envelopes containing anthrax posed health risks to mail handlers, and that opening such a letter could instantly release millions of deadly spores into the air.

They tried to warn U.S. health officials once the attacks began. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn't open the e-mail; officials there learned the details of the Canadian study only last month.

CDC officials said last night that while the information was "relevant," it wouldn't have altered the way they dealt with the attacks.

Canadian officials started researching the issue in February after an anthrax hoax letter was mailed in Canada in late January; they had the basic findings by March. Researchers put a more benign but similar bacterium, Bacillus globigii, in an envelope as a surrogate for the deadly Bacillus anthracis. During a series of tests, a lab technician seated at a desk sliced open a contaminated envelope inside an aerosol test chamber and millions of spores were instantly detected. Health authorities have generally believed 8,000 to 10,000 spores are enough to infect a person with inhalational anthrax; they now think a smaller number could be enough.

"If the envelope was not completely sealed, it could also pose a threat to individuals in the mail handling system," said the Canadian research report, dated September 2001.

The Canadian study was discussed publicly for the first time Tuesday at a CDC meeting called to discuss the anthrax attacks. Canadian officials said they e-mailed the study to the CDC Oct. 4 after anthrax first surfaced at the headquarters of a Florida tabloid. But the e-mail to an official with CDC's laboratory response network was never opened, said Bradley Perkins, a lead anthrax investigator for the CDC. Dr. Perkins said he eventually learned of the research from a university health official around Oct. 30 and invited the Canadian researchers to make a full presentation of their study in Atlanta Nov. 4.

When the letter to Sen. Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) was discovered in October, Canadian researchers suspected postal workers might be at risk, said Bill Kournikakis, head of the preventive medicine group for chemical and biological defense at the Defence Research Establishment in Alberta, Canada, which conducted the study. But Mr. Kournikakis said he never followed up on his e-mail. Mr. Kournikakis said even if the CDC was aware of his research it was a "difficult call" about whether to give hundreds of postal workers antibiotics, because the Daschle letter was heavily taped on the ends -- a scenario his study didn't explore.

The CDC's Dr. Perkins said he was sorry to hear the e-mail was never opened. "It is certainly relevant data, but I don't think it would have altered the decisions that we made," he said. He said the CDC didn't think there was a risk to postal workers in the Washington area because no anthrax disease was found among Florida postal workers in the initial cases. "I think more weight would have been put on the Florida experience and the absence of demonstrated risk [among postal workers] than the experimental data," he said.

Two Washington postal workers died of inhalation anthrax on Oct. 21 and 22.

Gerry Kreienkamp, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said the agency has relied on the CDC's advice, and whether it would have responded differently depended on whether the CDC would have given "different advice to us if they had other information. We're not in the public-health field and we don't keep up with the latest research," he said.

The Canadian study showed that "a lethal dose could be inhaled within seconds of opening an anthrax spore filled envelope," said Mr. Kournikakis. "This is an aerosol that will travel through the room and get into the ventilation system."

He said his agency's tests showed that anthrax spores could spill from a sealed envelope and pose a health risk to postal workers. The Canadian test envelopes were sealed normally and had small openings on the edges where there is typically no adhesive. The Daschle letter was heavily sealed with tape, prompting officials at the time to think contamination from the letter was highly unlikely.

-- Kathy Chen contributed to this article.