- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

Anthrax fears are still in the air, and no wonder. Despite the search of the home of a researcher from Fort Detrick, investigators are apparently nowhere close to finding out who sent the anthrax-laden letters that killed five persons and sickened at least 13 others last fall.

Beyond investigators' recent discovery that the finely ground Ames strain of anthrax used in the attacks was no more than 3 years old, the facts are murky. Indeed, it is not even clear whether the individual(s) behind the mailings were foreigners or U.S. nationals.

FBI agents had been pursuing the latter theory, conducting thousands of interviews and giving polygraphs to hundreds of individuals who may have had access to the bacteria at either Fort Detrick or the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Authorities do not seem to know why the attacks stopped, leaving open the possibity that they will resume.

Things have not been much better at the local level. While the Hart Senate building has long been open, the doors still haven't reopened at the Brentwood postal processing center. That facility became emblematic of the faulty assumptions and failed communications that characterized the worst aspects of the nation's response. Two Brentwood postal employees died of inhalation anthrax after health officials failed to consider that anthrax could escape from sealed envelopes and, as a consequence, failed to prescribe appropriate antibiotics.

Brentwood still hasn't been decontaminated, and local officials still aren't communicating. According to a story by Guy Taylor of The Washington Times, "authorities are doing a poor job of informing the public about the timing, progress and dangers of the anthrax cleanup."

There's simply no excuse for such a failure: While the bureaucratic mentality may mandate buck-passing and coverups of poor performance, residents and local business owners have every right to expect that they will be informed on a regular basis of the progress and the potential dangers of the cleanup. Given the ability of anthrax spores to survive even extreme climatic conditions, the postal workers who return to work there (whenever they do so) should also be informed of their level of risk.

In its defense, the federal government has taken several encouraging steps. President Bush recently signed a $4.3 billion bioterrorism bill, funds from which will be used to build up the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile. Moreover, $640 million of this money will be put into enlarging available supplies of smallpox vaccine. Other money will be spent on food safety and water-system security. In addition, the FDA recently changed its rules to permit the (relatively) quick approval of drugs designed to protect people from bioterrorism attacks.

Still, while bureaucratic adjustments are one thing, better results against bioterrorism are another thing entirely. Time (and hopefully, a few arrests) will tell if proper action has been taken in cleansing the threat of anthrax from the air.

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