The anthrax scare went global this weekend, as letters and packets thought to be tainted by the deadly germ-warfare agent made their way to journalists, businessmen, and postal workers from France to Lithuania to Pakistan.
At present, there have been no confirmed cases outside the US of people having contracted anthrax as a result of a bioterror attack, and the vast majority of incidents have turned out to be hoaxes. But there is no question that many more nations now are taking extra precautions, including sealing off mailrooms with plastic sheeting and supplying at-risk workers with antibiotics, face masks, and gloves.
The most recent confirmed incident occurred Thursday in the offices of Daily Jang, Pakistan's largest Urdu-language newspaper, based in the port city of Karachi. A reporter opened a press release and discovered a packet of white powder. Pakistani police say the powder tested positive for anthrax spores, but thus far no Jang employee has tested positive for exposure. As a precaution, Pakistan's health ministry ordered a second test of the supposed anthrax powder.
"No one can say for sure at this stage where the letter has been posted from, but I'm sure everyone is being far more careful and using precautions in opening mail," says Gen. Rashid Qureshi, the main spokesman for the Pakistani government. "We have enough antibiotics available in case of an outbreak," he adds. Two men have been arrested in the case.
While a massive investigation in the US has yet to determine the motives or the people behind the original anthrax attacks a month ago - resulting in 17 confirmed cases, including four deaths - much of the world is taking swift action to counter bioterrorism. With thousands of anthrax claims reported in France, Germany, and Britain alone, police and public-health officials have their work cut out, distinguishing true terrorists from malicious hoaxes and ill-conceived pranks. And while it's uncertain if there is any connection between the anthrax scares and the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, one point is clear: America's allies have become targets.
Nowhere is that tension felt more than in Pakistan, a key ally in the US-led campaign against the man Washington says is responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, his Al Qaeda terrorist network, and the Afghan Taliban government of that harbors him. Pakistani officials confirm two cases of anthrax exposure over the past 10 days, but say thus far, no one has been diagnosed as infected.
Police in Karachi detained two men over the weekend. One, Mohammad Yousaf, head of the nongovernmental organization that runs education projects in Karachi, reportedly told authorities he suspected that a friend, Mohammad Salim, had inserted the powder into a press release from the group. Police arrested Mr. Salim on Sunday.
Jang, which has mainly supported Pakistan's alliance with the US against the Taliban, has reported receiving other anthrax-related envelopes in the past two weeks, including an envelope sent to its Quetta bureau that read "Here's your anthrax sample."
In a press conference, Health Minister Abdul Malik Kasi questioned the accuracy of the first test that found anthrax spores in the powder sent to Jang. A second test is planned this week at the more advanced National Institute of Health in Islamabad.
In Europe, the most serious case of potential contamination came in mail bags sent to the US Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania, from the contaminated State Department mail-handling facilities in Washington, where anthrax was confirmed a week ago. Embassy spokesman Michael Boyle said five empty mailbags received between Oct. 11 and Oct. 24 were sent for testing last week. Two of the bags tested positive.
The US Embassy in Athens, Greece, also sent diplomatic mail to labs for testing this weekend, and staff were taking antibiotics as a precaution.
But virtually all of the thousands of anthrax scares in Europe have been hoaxes. In one incident, a man turned himself in to police in northern Germany Friday, confessing he left 30 packages of powder around his hometown. He was, he said, celebrating his birthday. Police say he could spend the next three in prison.
In Britain, police have been so overwhelmed with anthrax alerts, government officials now talk of increasing the penalty for hoaxes to seven years in jail. Britain's main investigative branch, Scotland Yard, has a special team to track down those responsible.
"Understandably, this is a time of heightened tension, and people who deliberately send hoax packages are exploiting this," said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Alan Fry.