Misinformation Is Real Anthrax Danger

Alarmists in the federal government and media were wrong about the "potency" of the anthrax found in Sen. Tom Daschle's office. This error hasn't dissuaded those who are exploiting the alleged "potency" to blame the recent anthrax letters on state-sponsored terrorism.

"Anthrax mailed to Senate found to be potent," headlined the New York Times on Wednesday. The Times' reporting raced downhill from there, calling it a "sign of an escalating threat" and suggesting that, "somewhere, someone has access to the sort of germ weapons capable of inflicting huge casualties."

Even the ordinarily level-headed editorial page of the Wall Street Journal fell victim to the panic. It's lead editorial on Thursday started off, "The bio-terror threat has taken a turn for the worse with news that the (Senate anthrax) came in a highly sophisticated form."

But by noon on Wednesday, we learned from public health officials that the Senate anthrax was of the "common variety" — a finding that should ease public fears and invigorate investigation for a domestic source of the anthrax mailings.

The anthrax bacterium causes harm by secreting a poison. The bacterium's "virulence" indicates the potency of this poison. The Senate anthrax and the strains identified in Florida and New York are not especially virulent, according to David Fleming, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Senate anthrax was found to be susceptible to a wide range of antibiotics, including Cipro, penicillin and tetracyclines.

This is good news. Even if infection with this strain of anthrax occurs, it can be cured if the infection is detected sufficiently early or simply by assuming exposure and treating with antibiotics.

Importantly, exposure to anthrax doesn't automatically mean infection and disease.

Infection occurs only after a sufficient exposure occurs. The threshold exposure level for infection is thought to be 10,000 spores. But depending upon a person's immune system and state of health, that level might range up to 50,000 anthrax spores.

In the tragic case of the Florida man who died from anthrax, not only did he inhale a sufficient number of spores, but he wasn't diagnosed until it was too late for successful treatment. Late diagnosis is not surprising given that, among the recent attacks, he was the first known case of infection.

Perhaps the overarching issue of the recent attacks is whether the source of the anthrax attacks is state-sponsored or a domestic sociopath.

This week's news reports — and given recent developments, we might even want to take these with a grain of salt — indicate the Senate anthrax was finely milled into very small spores. Such processing means that the anthrax spores become airborne more easily, thereby being easier to inhale.

Advocates of Iraq-Al Qaeda as the anthrax source claim this fine milling indicates the kind of sophisticated processing that requires state-sponsorship. This is not necessarily so.

The recent attacks involved relatively small amounts of anthrax that could be produced by a knowledgeable individual with limited resources — say someone with an undergraduate degree in biology who has access to lab equipment.

Frustrated former United Nations' weapons inspector Richard Butler — surfing the anthrax publicity tidal wave — can't wait to blame Iraq. Butler opined in a New York Times op-ed that Iraq spent millions of dollars buying the equipment to refine "its crude anthrax to the more potent, longer-living form of dry, small particles."

Butler writes that, "no one should be surprised" if the path leads to Iraq as the perpetrators of the anthrax attacks. He also writes, "The possibility of a Russian origin for the anthrax also needs to be investigated."

But Butler overlooks a glaring weakness in this theory of foreign weapons programs as the source.

If state-sponsored terrorists went to the trouble of developing "potent" anthrax — spending millions of dollars and incurring the risk of military retaliation — why use a "common-variety" strain of anthrax? Why not develop a strain of anthrax that is highly virulent and resistant to antibiotics? Is Al Qaeda known for terrorism without lots of casualties?

The anthrax used in the current round of attacks is more of a short-lived fright and temporary inconvenience than a reason for public panic and government shutdown.

Fortunately, the FBI has not been dissuaded from pursuing a domestic source for the anthrax attacks. One government official even says evidence has been developed of a domestic culprit.

None of this takes away from the possibility that Iraq, Al Qaeda and others may have the capability and desire to commit bio-terrorism.

But in our search for the source of the current anthrax attacks, we shouldn't be led astray by some who might have ulterior motives for pointing the finger elsewhere.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).