FBI trying to determine when anthrax added to Reno letter
RENO (AP) – All six people exposed to anthrax in a letter at a Microsoft office in Nevada have tested negative for the deadly, inhaled version of the disease, state officials said Monday.
The nasal swab tests for the final two people came back negative Monday, Washoe County District Health Officer Barbara Hunt said. The other four had tested negative on Sunday.
State officials were waiting for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to complete tests on the anthrax sample from the letter at Microsoft Licensing in Reno to determine whether it is a disease-causing strain or a harmless vaccine strain.
Hunt said that was a secondary concern because no one had shown any signs of illness.
”The negative nasal swab tests, combined with the physical condition and location of the letter, indicate that this is a very, very low risk situation even if the CDC results indicate that the anthrax isolate did contain a disease-causing strain,” Hunt said.
”It is a great relief,” Hunt said.
Health officials will monitor the six people for the less dangerous form of anthrax, which can result in skin lesions but is highly treatable, she said.
State officials also were testing a vial filled with powder found aboard an America West flight from Phoenix that was isolated after it arrived at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Officials suspect the material is harmless and could be a hoax.
Ten passengers and crew members were subjected to decontamination procedures by a hazardous materials team at the airport early Monday morning, spokesman Adam Mayberry said. The FBI and Federal Aviation Administration were notified.
An FBI spokesman said Monday from Las Vegas that the agency is investigating whether the letter that tested positive for anthrax was contaminated before or after it was sent to Malaysia then returned to Microsoft in Reno.
”It is too early to tell,” FBI spokesman Daron Borst told The Associated Press. ”Anything is possible at this point.”
Borst said the FBI will release additional information ”if we develop anything that is a public safety issue,” but otherwise won’t be making any statements on the progress of the investigation.
”If the CDC test comes back positive for the content of anthrax, then yes, it will be considered a criminal investigation,” he said.
The anthrax was found in the letter on a pornographic picture, which apparently had been cut from a magazine.
Gov. Kenny Guinn said Microsoft had sent a check in the letter to a vendor in Malaysia. The letter was returned and the check was still in the letter, along with pornographic material. The vendor wasn’t identified.
Microsoft representatives contacted U.S. health officials Wednesday after an employee became suspicious about the returned envelope.
Malaysia’s foreign minister said Monday he believed that the letter did not originate in Malaysia. He suggested it might have been tampered with before it was sent to Malaysia.
”I think definitely there is no truth that the thing originates from Malaysia,” Syed Hamid Albar told reporters after holding talks with a senior U.S. government trade representative.
Syed Hamid said he told U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick that Malaysia was concerned that unverified anthrax information could cause fear in other countries. Zoellick later met with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The Malaysian government has pledged to prosecute anyone shown to be involved in the Nevada anthrax letter, and to cooperate fully with U.S. investigators. The government has appealed to the FBI for all relevant information.
”We do not know exactly how the thing originates,” Syed Hamid said.
Meanwhile, Microsoft officials sought to reassure employees returning to work Monday. About 600 employees work in the Sierra Pacific Power headquarters building in Reno where Microsoft Licensing Inc. leases office space.
Counseling sessions were held with workers over the weekend and were continuing Monday.
”What we are trying to manage now are not the medical issues – which the local health officials have done a good job with – but those legitimate emotional concerns that people have,” Sierra Pacific President Jeff Ceccarelli said.
Dan Leach, a spokesman for Microsoft, said there did not appear to be any great anxiety on the part of 140 Microsoft workers at the office.
”Any risk is obviously an emotional concern,” he said. ”But the people I have talked with seem to be handling it well.”
All six people being tested – five Microsoft employees and a family member – had some form of contact with the contaminated letter.
Hunt said the letter contained such a small amount of anthrax that it’s difficult to know whether it was deliberately placed on the picture.
”There’s always a chance it came from contaminated soil and ended up on the picture accidentally,” she said, adding it’s a matter for law enforcement authorities to decide.
Borst said it’s too early to tell whether terrorists sent the letter, but ”anytime you send anthrax through the mail, the intent is to induce fear and that’s a form of terrorism.”
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