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Javed Ali: Anthrax Q&A



CNN's bioterrorism analyst Javed Ali has written extensively for various publications, including Jane's Defence, and is the principal author of Jane's U.S. Chemical Biological Defense Guidebook. He has a background in the analysis of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, counter-terrorism, and Middle Eastern and Asian security and political dynamics.

CNN: A flurry of activity occurred yesterday. Give us your assessment of these anthrax discoveries both in Washington and New York.

ALI: Those discoveries were certainly alarming, at least to the extent that we as a nation continue to experience these kinds of incidents. And now there is some indication that other nations are experiencing at least the residual effects that have gripped our country, with respect to the fear and anxiety resulting from these isolated incidents.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there any connections with the anthrax case in Kenya with those in the U.S.?

ALI: It's not clear, although because it appears that all of the cases that have occurred in the United States today were distributed internally within the United States. All the letters in the U.S. were mailed within the U.S. And now we're seeing a letter mailed from the U.S. to an international point. Is there a connection? Possibly, but is it clear with any accuracy or precision? I don't think we have those answers yet.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can other mail that was with the mail that contained anthrax be contaminated?

ALI: Only if the mail that was contaminated, that contamination had occurred on the outside of that letter or package, as opposed to the material being on the inside. So I think there's a very slim possibility of that.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there an effective way for the U.S. Postal Service to screen mail for anthrax? If not, are they working on it?

ALI: I don't have a good answer for that, but I don't believe that the current postal system screens for the presence of biological contaminants. There may be another system in place, but I'm not aware of it.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Someone from the FBI told me yesterday that 20,000 anthrax spores would be invisible to the human eye. Is that true?

ALI: Correct. While the number itself is a significant number in the biological sense, it still means that that number is infinitesimally small, with respect to having the naked eye being able to detect that on a piece of paper, a piece of mail or package.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does the current roster of antibiotics like Cipro et al, work against the strain of anthrax the Soviet Union developed years ago?

ALI: I'm not sure, but from what has been learned about the 1979 Sveredlozsk anthrax incident, where a containment failure at a biological weapons production facility occurred, and a small amount of anthrax was released into the air, and infected dozens through an aerosol route. A large percentage of those people died, and some of the pathological studies performed on those individuals showed that some were exposed to multiple strains of anthrax. It doesn't really answer the question, but I don't think there's really a definitive answer.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How do the senders of these letters avoid the virus? ALI: First of all, anthrax, disease, is caused by a bacteria. It's not a virus. Viruses are a different category of biological organism. But the broader question of how the senders protect themselves could be explained by the fact that they have taken the appropriate antibiotics, or were wearing appropriate personal protective clothing, or had produced the material with the appropriate safety measures, which for anthrax, aren't that great anyway, at least relative to other biological agents. CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you believe, based on the evidence and the quality of the anthrax that was sent, that this is an external attack rather than an internal?

ALI: I don't think there's any clear picture that is formed, because it's not clear what exactly was the quality of that material. There seems to be a range of opinion to what that quality actually is, so to me, it's still an undefined question, if not answer.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: With all that is going on with anthrax scare in America, is there anything the public doesn't know and should?

ALI: I think the public has been informed to the best degree that the government has been able to provide information. So, what the public has to realize, or should realize, is that these incidents in their current method of delivery, do not pose a risk of creating mass casualties beyond the people who directly handle these pieces of mail, or letters or packages. Statistically speaking, people face a greater risk of being the victim of a violent crime or suffering injury from a random incident than by being exposed to this particular disease. So, a sense of calm should prevail, although people should be understandably concerned.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Has it been proven that anthrax is related to the September 11 attacks?

ALI: My bottom-line assessment is that it's still too early to tell and that as the investigation continues on multiple channels, that we'll have greater clarity in the coming days and weeks, with respect to the potential perpetrator or perpetrators.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the role of the public, and how can they be sure that they are safe? ALI: The best role for the public would be for people not to let these incidents affect their daily activities. One of the, if not the primary objectives for these incidents appears to be creating mass panic and anxiety, instead of mass destruction or mass contamination. So, if we all can understand the relatively low or very low probability of potential exposure, and the associated federal, state and local response to these incidents in their ability to provide medical therapeutics, the public should take some comfort in that.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What would be the first symptoms of anthrax warranting a medical attention?

ALI: There are three forms of the disease, and each of those particular forms generates a unique symptomology. The most difficult of the three forms to recognize early, once someone is symptomatic, is pulmonary anthrax, which unfortunately, is also the most lethal form of the disease.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us? ALI: Thank you for your questions. In closing, I would like to offer that while these incidents within the United States are unfortunate, the public should take comfort that the government is on a heightened state of surveillance in attempting to respond and treat any exposures that may occur, but is also attempting to prevent further exposures from happening in the first place. In addition, these incidents have not caused more than a handful of people to actually contract any form of the disease.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Javed Ali.

Javed Ali joined the chat room via telephone and CNN.com provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, October 18, 2001 at 1:30 p.m. EDT.



 
 
 
 


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