- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

The White House is warning that anthrax field tests widely used since the attacks in the fall give fast but often incorrect results, prompting authorities to shut down buildings prematurely and hand out unneeded antibiotics.
In a memo being sent Monday to more than 250 federal agencies, and to firefighters, police and local officials across the country, authorities say none of the commercially available field tests is reliable. They advise federal agencies to stop buying them and cancel pending contracts.
"This equipment does not pass acceptable standards for effectiveness," said the memo from John H. Marburger III, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "Field testing is not recommended and should not be used."
The advisory comes after an extensive study of the tests by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the FBI. The study, the first of its kind, found that all tests on the market are prone to miss small amounts of anthrax and to detect anthrax when there was none there.
The memo advises authorities to send results to a CDC-approved lab, where they can get initial readings within six hours. A 17-page set of guidelines offers detailed suggestions for how to handle suspicious mail, warning agencies not to take "dramatic actions" before figuring out whether the threat is credible.
The guidelines also recommend that federal agencies stop routinely testing their mailrooms for anthrax, given that most mail is being irradiated, low levels of anthrax do not pose a significant risk and the tests used are not reliable.
The administration's warning about the field tests come as The Washington Times reported in yesterday's editions that doctors in Baltimore who treated postal workers exposed to anthrax in the fall discovered new, long-term symptoms. The doctors found previously unreported symptoms such as fluid buildup around the heart, low hormone levels and chest pain.
The field tests which cost about $35 each are designed to quickly determine whether a suspicious white powder could be anthrax, and hundreds of thousands of them were sold during and after the attacks by mail in the fall.
But false results cause real problems, officials say.
In May, for instance, field tests indicated there was anthrax in the mailrooms of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The World Bank shut down the building's ventilation system and sent 1,200 workers home because it was too hot to work inside. The IMF gave about 100 people antibiotics, though many held off taking them.
Anthrax was not confirmed at either location.
"Bad information is worse than no information," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, a bioterrorism expert at the University of Minnesota who has been serving as an adviser to the HHS.
Still, at the World Bank, there are no regrets.
"The bank will always err on the side of caution," spokesman Damian Milverton said.
Mr. Milverson said that forcing staff to work from home is nothing compared with the risk of ignoring what could be anthrax. But he added that officials will consider the guidelines.
Field tests are easy to use. A sample of suspicious powder is dissolved into a special fluid and run through a gadget to check for genetic markers from the bacillus family, which includes anthrax.
But they also pick up other bacteria in the bacillus family. And they won't register anthrax if there are fewer than 100,000 spores more than enough to kill someone.

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