Anthrax Panic Spreads to Europe

The anthrax in Boca Raton, Fla., that killed tabloid photo editor Robert Stevens has been found on two other people. FBI agents now suspect that the disease was spread by criminal action, and U.S. emergency services are being inundated by calls from citizens who see bio-terrorism everywhere. 

A call by the State Department to its diplomatic missions abroad to stock up on antibiotics that can counter the effects of anthrax added to the general feeling of unease. 

German police investigated two cases of “possible infectious agents,” including an envelope with white powder found in the garage of a Berlin furniture store and labeled “contains anthrax bacteria.” Six people were taken to hospital for contamination checks, and police took the names of about 600 others in the store. The contents of the envelope and of a second package, from an undisclosed location, were analyzed by the Robert Koch Institute, a federal laboratory for infectious diseases. Neither test revealed any danger. 

In Coventry, police were called to investigate a suspicious envelope that turned out to be a promotional mail package containing sand. Scotland Yard said that it had received hundreds of calls from people about suspicious packages. 

British Home Secretary David Blunkett played down fears that Al Qaeda terrorists could be planning an attack on the West using anthrax bacteria. Blunkett spoke out after Ben Bradshaw, a junior Foreign Office Minister, had said that Al Qaeda probably had a stockpile of biological weapons that it would use if its members got the chance. Blunkett, however, called for calm. “We do not know that what happened in Florida came from a terrorist attack — it may well have come from a madman who wished to cause fear and dissension,” he said. 

There was irritation in Whitehall over Bradshaw’s comments. As chairman of the Civil Contingencies Committee, Blunkett has emphasized the importance of all ministers “singing from the same hymn sheet” and being extremely precise in the language they use so as not to cause undue alarm. 

As the European Commission civil protection group meets today in Knokke, Belgium, to discuss ways of combating bio-terrorism, Germany’s Cabinet pledged to set up an office to review the threat from biological weapons; the Dutch Farming Ministry said that it was examining its food chain for weaknesses; and the Italian government said that it had established a unit to investigate the threat. 

In America, it emerged that the anthrax strain found in the offices of a supermarket tabloid in Boca Raton may have been developed at an Iowa laboratory about 50 years ago. Such a match would mean that the spores were man-made, and that their presence was criminal rather than accidental. But how and why anthrax produced in the 1950s for research got into a letter mailed half a century later to American Media Inc, where Stevens worked, is unclear. 

Officials say that the strain may have been widely distributed to research laboratories. 

Tests discovered one anthrax spore in the nasal passage of one of Stevens’s co-workers, Ernesto Blanco. On Wednesday night, anthrax was also found to be present in a 35-year-old woman who works in the same building. Neither has contracted the disease.