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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Anthrax Victim Is Mourned; Another Leaves N.J. Hospital

Bioterrorism: As New Yorker is buried, inhalation patient proclaims 'there is hope.' Researchers hail a new test that can quickly detect spores.

November 06, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY and ROSIE MESTEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — On the day that Kathy T. Nguyen, the fourth fatality in the anthrax attacks, was buried in New York City, another inhalation anthrax patient in New Jersey was released from the hospital, becoming the third victim to recover from the often-fatal disease.

And researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota announced Monday that they have developed a new test designed to detect anthrax spores in people and places in less than an hour--an important diagnostic tool, if accurate.

The need for faster detection methods was illustrated Monday by the discovery of new anthrax hot spots and the results of additional tests showing that earlier reports of anthrax contamination at other locations were false alarms.

At the Pentagon, traces of anthrax were found on two post office boxes and cleaned up over the weekend, Pentagon officials said Monday. The two boxes, one rented by a Pentagon employee and the other unused, were among 1,100 private boxes available at the postal branch.

Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said about 800 of the boxes were being used and renters were being notified and given the option to seek medical treatment. Health officials, he said, believed the findings are consistent with cross-contamination from mail that came from the tainted Washington postal hub that processed a letter sent to the Senate last month.

Also on Monday, State Department officials said preliminary tests showed anthrax spores at the U.S. Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, although they cautioned that previous early tests had proved unreliable.

Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration said Monday that additional tests of its Maryland headquarters showed no evidence of anthrax, contradicting early test results last week.

Mail room employees at the FDA were told to stop taking anti-anthrax drugs. Tens of thousands of postal workers, federal employees and others have been advised by federal health officials to begin antibiotics while laboratory results were pending--and the vast majority were pulled off the drugs when tests came back negative.

An accurate, fast test for anthrax spores could speed treatment and significantly reduce the need for precautionary antibiotics.

But quick tests now on the market are so unreliable that federal officials have recommended they not be used. Medical and criminal investigators have been hampered by the delay--as long as several days--for cultures, the most reliable tests, to be completed.

The test announced Monday--called Mayo-Roche after its developers--uses a bare-bones version of a technique that detects tiny fragments of DNA that are specific to a particular species or creature. In this case, the test screens for pieces of anthrax DNA involved in making the bacterium's dangerous outer coat.

The Mayo lab has already devised and is using similar rapid tests for diseases such as strep throat and herpes. But the research into such a test for anthrax "had been on the back burner" until the recent attacks, said Dr. Franklin Cockerill, a microbiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Cockerill headed the team that developed the anthrax test in collaboration with the Swiss company Roche Diagnostics.

The test has not yet been approved for diagnostic purposes, although FDA spokeswoman Sharon Snider said the agency is working with the company "to determine the best way to expedite review."

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta cautioned that, although they have had conversations with the Mayo group, they have not studied the efficiency or validity of the test.

Initially, Roche plans to make the test available to about two dozen labs across the United States--the first possibly by the end of this week, said Juergen Flach, vice president of the company's molecular biochemical division.

And in another potential breakthrough, scientists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington are screening 500 people this week who have been exposed to anthrax spores with a technology called LeuTech that shows where white blood cells are gathering in response to infection. The hope is that such screens may help doctors catch inhalation infections earlier, allowing aggressive treatment soon enough to improve a patient's chances for survival.

In New York's South Bronx, meanwhile, more than 300 people attended funeral services for Nguyen, a 61-year old hospital stockroom worker who died last week. Her case has baffled investigators, who can find no connection between Nguyen, a quiet Vietnamese immigrant who lived alone, and any of the known anthrax-laced letters.

"She was just a well-loved individual," said Father Carlos Rodriguez during the 90-minute service, conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.

In a conference call Monday, Dr. Bradley Perkins, a CDC anthrax expert, said investigators are working hard to uncover Nguyen's movements in her final days.

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