Why so many miscues on anthrax?
The US response is complicated by manpower shortages and rivalries among agencies.
WASHINGTON — The anthrax attacks on America, including three new incidents that came to light this weekend, have sown seeds of confusion and chaos across America - and government officials and agencies have proved to be no exception.
The recent attacks, observers say, exposed three big weaknesses in government's ability to respond to acts of bioterrorism.
They reveal a decided lack of knowledge about biological weapons. While experts acknowledge that anthrax is a complicated subject with few easy answers, politicians, eager to appear informed, have tripped badly over terms like "weapons grade," and "infected" versus "exposed."
They highlight the manpower shortage up and down government ranks. The top spots at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, for instance, are vacant. Both are key command posts during a bio-attack.
They show that traditional alley-cat rivalries endure among agencies - especially between public-health and law-enforcement officials.
These troubles led key players to stumble in the first weeks of the attacks. Yet there are signs government is rallying - and that it's better prepared should more attacks occur.
"Everybody's on a huge learning curve, and there's the potential for confusion every which way you look," says Amy Smithson, a chemical and biological weapons expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center here.
As of yesterday, scores of people had tested positive for exposure to anthrax, but health officials say that nine of them tested positive for infection - including the Florida man who died Oct. 5. Seven are expected to recover fully, and the eighth, a Washington postal worker whose office sorts mail for the US Capitol, is in stable condition in a hospital.
Tests were ongoing in numerous places, including the New York City offices of Gov. George Pataki. This weekend, officials discovered anthrax in a US House of Representatives office building and in an unopened letter at the New York Post. Meanwhile, hoaxes have popped up from Bahrain to Britain.
On the investigative front, anthrax used in the American Media letter in Florida, the NBC letter to Tom Brokaw, and the letter to Sen. Tom Daschle appear to be from a similar strain - raising the likelihood that one person or group is responsible for all three. The anthrax appears not to have been weaponized.
The swirling talk about negatives versus positives and exposures versus infections has sparked much confusion. As recently as Friday, officials were still behind the curve during their press appearances. By 11:30 a.m., for instance, the media were reporting that a New York Post employee had tested positive for infection. Then, at a 1 p.m. White House briefing, homeland-security chief Tom Ridge was asked about the Post case. With cameras whirring and the White House seal behind him, he said he didn't know anything about it.
Then Surgeon General David Satcher - in his black, epaulet-topped jacket with gold braid on the sleeves - stepped in to say: "The most recent data I have is that the person from the New York Post tested negative."
Within hours, a positive test was confirmed.
One reason for the confusion is tests that last different lengths of time are done on a sample, says David Franz, former head of the US Army's germ-defense lab.
Typically, the first test will be quick and ultrasensitive - to ensure no anthrax is missed. "But that can have a false positive," says Dr. Franz. He likens it to high-tick airport metal detectors that pick up a passenger's steel-tipped boots. Then, slower, more accurate tests might later determine the first positive was a false alarm.
But with the public and the media clamoring for information, officials are quick to oblige, even if the data are incomplete. Few politicians, though, know the difference, say, between "fine" and "weaponized" anthrax. When uninformed leaders throw around such words - as they did last week - they add to confusion.
"The government has to designate someone who knows the science, and who has the information to tell us what can be told," insists Matthew Meselson, head of a Harvard University program on chemical and biological weapons. He suggests someone from the Centers for Disease Control for that job.
But lack of personnel complicates that idea. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin, isn't a health expert and doesn't have a deputy director. The Surgeon General, a natural choice for health spokes-man, is "persona non grata at the White House," says Paul Light, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Historic tension between law-enforcement and public-health officials, too, may contribute to the problem. The FBI, for instance, wants to keep information secret to prevent criminals from figuring out how far an investigation has progressed. Yet public-health officials want to get information out to the public. Top government scientists have reportedly been told to keep mum.
Yet there is progress. The information flow is starting to be organized. Mr. Ridge is holding regular briefings - and may emerge as the point man for solid data. Secretary Thompson has begun repeating: "Anthrax is not contagious. And we have plenty of antibiotics." He led a conference call on Friday with some 50,000 doctors on the line.
Staff writers Francine Kiefer and Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.