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No Link in Mailed Anthrax to Known Government Sources

Medicine: Bacteria culled from recent outbreaks are probably from the same source. The analysis doesn't yet point to a perpetrator.


WASHINGTON — A top FBI official, facing sharp questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, acknowledged Tuesday that detailed analysis of anthrax spores mailed to targets here and in New York has not led to any known sources of the deadly bacteria.

"We do not believe [anthrax samples] were stolen or misplaced from a registered laboratory," James Caruso, an FBI expert, told members of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism.

Caruso said "many people" have the training and potential to produce deadly biological agents.

"It's a very, very big population and universe to look at," he said.

But as another day passed with no breaks in the criminal investigation into the anthrax attacks, health officials noted a positive sign: There have been no new confirmed or suspected cases since Friday.

"There has been good news in recent days," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson told reporters. "But as Americans, we all must continue to be vigilant."

Federal health officials said they continue to work closely with law enforcement to find the source of the mailed anthrax, which has killed four people and left at least 13 others ill.

Scientists say they believe the same source is responsible in all the confirmed cases, based on molecular comparisons of the bacteria found in the letters and in cultures taken from sick and dead patients.

But Dr. Jim Hughes, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday that, "in terms of the source or the identity of the perpetrator, [the analysis] has not pointed in a specific direction."

Thompson said that, while he is relieved by the lack of new cases, his agency is working quickly to address other possible means of biological attack, including botulism, bloodstream poisons, the plague, chemicals--"the list goes on and on."

Those potential threats--and the investigators' inability to tie the anthrax spores in three contaminated letters to registered specimens of the bacteria--were the focus of Tuesday's hearing.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Caruso how many labs in the U.S. handle anthrax.

"We do not know that at this time. I can assure--" he said, before being interrupted by Feinstein.

"You don't know that?" she asked.

"No, we do not," Caruso said. "We're pressing hard to determine that--"

Feinstein broke in again: "Could you possibly tell me why you do not know that?"

Caruso replied: "The research capabilities of thousands of researchers is something that we're just continuing to run down. I know it's an unsatisfactory answer, and unsatisfying to us, as well."

Caruso said investigators had not yet narrowed down the types of laboratory access and equipment necessary to make the quality of anthrax found and did not know how many labs in the country were capable of producing it.

Feinstein told Caruso and Jim Reynolds, the chief of the Justice Department's Terrorism and Violent Crimes Section, that she had serious concerns over the fact that existing laws make it possible for anthrax specimens to be transferred with no government oversight.

"The fact that they haven't come up with something would indicate to me that [the anthrax specimens] were not registered with the CDC, therefore presenting us with another huge loophole," Feinstein said. She has introduced a bill to ban individual possession of dangerous pathogens and toxins outside of government-certified laboratories.

"With the spread of anthrax through the mail, our nation is facing an unprecedented biological attack," she said. "Yet amazingly, under current law, individuals can possess anthrax bacteria, smallpox virus or other dangerous pathogens with very few restrictions."

Some academic officials at the hearing endorsed the need for controlling dangerous substances but said legislation should avoid impeding legitimate scientific inquiry.

"The marriage between academic scientific inquiry and national security has been sound and mutually beneficial," said Dr. Michael V. Drake, the University of California system's vice president for health affairs.

In New York, law enforcement officials said they are using a subway fare card, which logs times and locations, and phone records to retrace the steps of Kathy T. Nguyen, the 61-year-old woman who died last week in the city's only case of inhalation anthrax.

NYPD Deputy Police Chief Joseph Reznick said that, despite pleas for help from the public in determining where Nguyen was and who she saw in her final days, "there's very little for us to go on."

But he offered the first possible scenario for how Nguyen, a hospital stockroom employee whose home and workplace show no signs of anthrax contamination, might have gotten ill.

"The way it was described to us is that she would have given a good sniff to the anthrax in whatever form it was in," Reznick said. "That leads us to believe that she either sniffed a letter that contained the powder or opened a jar that contained it."

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