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Scientists open Leahy anthrax letter

The Army's biological warfare research lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Scientists at Fort Detrick, a germ warfare research lab in Maryland, Wednesday opened the envelope containing an anthrax-contaminated letter addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy and began the painstaking process of removing the anthrax inside, the FBI said.

Experts at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases have spent the past three weeks developing a detailed protocol to follow in opening the letter.

The next steps include gathering as much of the suspected anthrax as possible and removing the letter inside the envelope.

Preparations for opening the envelope also included installing new, sophisticated laboratory equipment being used to extract the suspected anthrax from the envelope.

Preliminary tests showed the anthrax in the Leahy envelope was of the same high quality as found in the letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

One source close to the process said scientists will keep as much of the substance as possible.

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"There's a whole lot of stuff going on. We're trying to preserve as much of this as we can," the source said.

Five people have died from anthrax infections believed to have come from anthrax-laden letters sent to news outlets and government offices.

The letter addressed to Leahy was discovered and quarantined November 16. Experts believe it will contain the same wording as a similar letter addressed to Daschle in mid-October.

Experts hope the anthrax in the Leahy letter will prove to be the most pristine of any recovered, because fewer people have handled the envelope and its contents.

An FBI-led team of investigators wearing hazardous material suits found the letter among thousands quarantined after the letter was sent to Daschle was opened, inadvertently distributing the spores.

The investigators selected the letter to Leahy after noticing similarities to the Daschle letter, such as the Trenton, New Jersey, postmark and the block-style handwriting.

Tony Esposito, a U.S. postal inspector in New Jersey, said the two letters passed through the same sorting machine in the Trenton processing center within 20 minutes of each other.

Leahy letter
The letter was postmarked October 9 in Trenton, New Jersey, the same day as the Daschle letter.  

The machine sorts 33,000 pieces of mail per hour, Esposito said, so there's a good possibility as many as 10,000 pieces of mail went through the sorter during the time between the contaminated letters.

On the investigation into who sent the letters and where they came from, Sandra Carrol of the FBI in New Jersey said postal inspectors and the FBI are close to narrowing the possible postal routes where the letters may have been collected to about a dozen.

She also said the FBI is checking security camera videos from post offices that tested positive for anthrax in the Trenton area, looking for anyone or anything suspicious.

-- CNN National Correspondents Eileen O'Connor and Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.


• U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Fort Detrick, Maryland
• Federal Bureau of Investigation
• U.S. Postal Service
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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