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Traces of Anthrax Found in Microsoft Office in Nevada

Aired October 13, 2001 - 15:48   ET


GOV. KENNY GUINN (R), NEVADA: ... and that means it is a form of certainly the anthrax, so we are in the process now. The samples are on the way to -- to CDC in Atlanta, Georgia. We are asking them -- we've been in contact with them on the phone -- and we are asking them to perform a test that we're not capable of testing because it takes a great deal of sophisticated equipment, and we're asking them to do a DNA test, which then allow us to determine whether or not that this is a strain -- a strand that is carrying an organism that would carry the disease, or -- which means that it is natural -- or is it a vaccine strain that is manufactured.

Now, that's very important. If it comes back certainly as a -- under the DNA test as an organism that's carrying the disease, then we will follow through with the Department of Health in Washoe County, under Director Hunt, who has a very capable staff who will do all of the follow-up, the procedures, any potential medication or any potential working and investigations, and carrying on with their information.

If it comes back under the vaccine strand, then we will not have a problem whatsoever. And that's what we're hopeful that it will do, be in the vaccine area. But it's just something we don't know at this particular time.

So in essence, it's really not conclusive for us to take further action at this time. Many of the people that the Health Department is working with, they have already had various nose and throat swabs. So they have taken a look at that, they are prepared and ready. And we would hope that we can receive this information back from CDC as quickly as possible.

It is in transit. It is somewhere between here and Atlantic -- or excuse me, Atlanta now. And hopefully, we can hear back from them depending on their schedule.

QUESTION: Governor, just to clarify, are you saying that you're not certain that this is a type of anthrax that poses a threat to the public or anybody who might have come in contact with it?

GUINN: Absolutely. You can have anthrax, but it has to then be determined whether it is a disease-carrying organism or whether it is a manufactured strand, such as when we were in the old days when we got vaccinated. And that's been known to happen before in some areas throughout the country, and we just have to determine that. Because you would not want to perform any form of -- or asking people to take medication without knowing that.

QUESTION: Are you taking measures for those who might have been exposed to the letter at the company?

GUINN: Yes. There's a -- there's a process. And Barbara Hunt at the Washoe County Health Department in Reno, Nevada, her staff, who is well trained in this area, has already met with the individual staff members. They have interviewed various people in the building, and especially those who were working in Microsoft and where the letter was turned into us from.

So yes, they have all of that data, and to the best of my knowledge, I think they have identified six people -- two who would be recommended for some special watchfulness and four others who had direct contact with the letter envelope in itself and its contents. And I don't have any further details, but I know they have taken swabs and that's where we are at this time. So.

I do have Dr. Todd with me if you have any real technical questions, but I think the important thing is that we want everybody to know that, first of all, all of our lab, microbiologists, Dr. Todd and all of our health people in Washoe County feel that this is a very, very low risk for public health under the circumstances, because there was no residue of any powder in this envelope, which is positive in many respects. And so, we think it is a very low risk, and we're just following through on the process that is certainly incumbent on us as public officials.

QUESTION: Governor, you say it's low risk, but the fact is you have got (UNINTELLIGIBLE) anthrax two out of three times coming through the mail.

GUINN: Well, that's right. But when you do not have powder and it does not come into the air, and it does not get into your nostrils or into your throat or down to your lungs, then it is a much lower risk than if you're just touching something, because you're not -- it is not going to permeate the skin unless you have some kind of a cut or an open wound, et cetera.

QUESTION: I guess my question is that just the fact that it came through the mail, and it is a deliberate mailing that came to this Microsoft company by someone who put anthrax on this (OFF-MIKE).

GUINN: Well, even in this case -- and I think there's been a little misunderstanding. It is my understanding that Microsoft sent this envelope in the first place. It originated from Microsoft, and it was a check sent to a vendor who had done some work for them. And it was returned, and it was in the same envelope, and it did not have anything suspicious, other than the fact that it came back as a check returned. And at some point -- and I don't know the exact number of days, as it sat on someone's desk it finally was opened.

The check was there, and then there was some other information -- some pornographic material had been inserted in the letter, so it had been tampered with. And that's when the individual was suspicious, and did exactly what he should have done. He called our health department. We in turn called CDC, who is available to us and also the FBI, and they picked up the material and delivered it to our lab, and we tested it.

And I would just like to say that that's very important for all of our public, all 50 states. We have a homeland security program, and we have worked with the governors via the teleconferences with the White House, and they have asked us to do a number of things. We have completed that process. And this process here in Nevada worked very, very well. It worked because we were prepared to process everything, it also worked because the individual was vigilant enough to do exactly what he should have done.

And you know, earlier detection is very important in any of these issues, should it turn out to be something that we have to medicate for.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that the kind of paranoia may sweep the nation, and people will be overly concerned?

GUINN: You know, it's not necessarily here, it is in New York, it's been in Florida, and it's on the minds of people. The American people have a high level of interest and intellectual capacity. They're well-schooled via the media, both print and television, over the airwaves. And so, there are no secrets here. And I think the best thing you can do is be open and honest and take the steps that you have to.

Of course, we're receiving many more calls today because there's many, many more mailings through the America, and we're no exception here in Nevada. But I'm sure that you've been watching the media, and they are reporting it, and we're trying to react to it.

Yes, our operational, emergency operational center is open. It's been very quiet up until the last day or so. The calls have increased tremendously. We have staffed it with more people, and I'm sure that the -- that we'll have some more areas that we'll have to turn over to our health lab.

QUESTION: Governor, can you shed anymore light on how this might have been tampered with, this envelope that Microsoft sent to Malaysia, who might have inserted this?

GUINN: You know, we just have no information. That will be left up to the -- to the health department who will carry through with the investigation and the law officials. Generally speaking, the law officials do not get involved in it because they have their hands full in other areas until we would say in the final analysis these tests come out and it would be a disease-carrying organism, they would look at it I'm sure in a most detailed way.

But they are involved. The FBI has been very cooperative. The FBI knows everything that we're talking about right now. I just got off the phone with our state area director, and they are up on everything, and they pass information. They are also hooking it into everything else they have on their Internet.

QUESTION: Is it considered a criminal case at this point?

GUINN: Not that I know of at this case, no.

QUESTION: It is clear though that somebody deliberately put this material on these photographs or whatever it is in the envelope, and then they got back to Microsoft. This was done by an individual or...

GUINN: It was -- it happened some way. The only thing that I can tell you in terms of details pursuant to the previous question is that when the envelope was opened, it was my understanding, third hand, that the check was in the envelope. The check did not check out positive in our lab, it was negative, but one of the pictures of the pornographic material did turn out to be the positive result in the first test. They were both negative in the second test, and then turned positive with that material.

So yes, somebody -- it did not go out that way, as at least the statement by the individual who turned it in.

QUESTION: You said (OFF-MIKE) in direct contact. Are you worried about absorption? Did they come, did they touch the material? Are you worried about the anthrax absorbing into the skin?

GUINN: That's my understanding, that they were actually in direct contact with the envelope. Four different people, up until last night. Now, what has happened this morning -- I do know there's a meeting today at 2:00, I believe -- I believe there's a meeting where the Health Department has indicated they are going to meet with all the employees in that particular building, which involved a number of people from Sierra Power, and also from Microsoft, and they are having those meetings today to give them full explanations, so that they will understand how little risk they have in that building from at least the data that we have today, and even working closely with those six people.

I have time for one more question, and then I'll let you go, because I've got to get going myself.

QUESTION: So, the low risk is based on the fact that it's not powder. Is this sort of the general idea?

GUINN: That would be the general idea, at least from what we've been told, because if the understanding that at least -- and I've seen this on television a number of times and listening to the experts talk -- that you can touch it but if you don't have something open and you don't move it to your mouth then you can wash it off.

Because as soon as they found a situation, even with powder, or if you've touched something, they will ask you to immediately disrobe, put your clothes in a container and also take a shower. And that's the first step in this process that they take. So, that means that they are trying to contain whatever it is to make sure it doesn't get into somebody else's either an open cut or get into somebody's breathing capacity.

QUESTION: Governor, one final point. Was there anything else in the envelope that might lead to some information about the motive someone might have had? I mean, why would somebody put pornographic pictures in an envelope and send it back?

GUINN: I don't know. I have no knowledge of that. It would be the intent of whatever -- whoever added this to it, because evidently it was added, at least that's the information we have from the statement from -- by the individual who turned it in. So we just don't know at this point.

But there has been a lot of -- a great deal of discussions and interviews, and I don't have the availability of that material at this point. So I don't know the details.

Thank you very much for being patient and...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Dr. Todd for a minute?

GUINN: Yes, we can. Dr. Todd.

QUESTION: I just wanted to ask (OFF-MIKE) if you could describe that last test (OFF-MIKE) how precise it is, the nature of the test.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, could you face the camera, sir?

DR. RANDALL TODD, NEVADA HEALTH DEPARTMENT: Sure. The way this occurred in the laboratory, they took some of the material and cultured it on a growth medium. It grew up a number of different organisms, one of them happened to be the genus bacillus, which includes anthrax, but also includes a number of different non- pathogenic organisms that are considered harmless.

What the lab had to do then was figure out if this was actually -- belonged to the species anthracis, which would be consistent with anthrax. The first test that they did was -- was called a gamafoge (ph) test. If you get a positive there, and the laboratory did, that is considered highly suspicious for the test being -- for the organism being anthrax.

They proceeded to do a direct fluorescent antibody test. Those, as we reported last evening, were negative. One of the things that makes the species anthracis rather unique is that this bacteria has a capsule around it. If you can find the presence of that capsule, you can be fairly sure that you're dealing with the organism anthrax.

So the third test that was completed this morning, they did demonstrate the presence of the capsule. They had to use a special staining procedure to do that. Even once we know this, as the governor has pointed out, we know that we have the organism anthrax, but we don't know if it is a virulent strain of organism or one that would be consistent with the harmless vaccine strain. So, that is what CDC is working on, or will be working on as soon as that sample arrives in their hands later today.

QUESTION: Do we know when they might get the results of that?

TODD: We don't know when they will get the results, because we don't know precisely when the sample will arrive.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) tested negative for all of the test, there are the two photos that tested positive, then negative, then positive -- is that correct?

TODD: It's my understanding from the laboratory personnel that the check did not test positive. It tested negative, and that one of the photographs grew the bacillus organism, which has subsequently on two different forms of testing given results that were consistent with bacillus anthracis on two of those three tests.

QUESTION: Are they photos or magazine pictures?

TODD: They were described to me as magazine pictures that have been clipped out and inserted into the envelope. But I also have not personally seen these -- any of this material.

QUESTION: Is the third test considered to be the most precise, the most reliable, to say without question at this point, yes, it is anthrax, but we don't know if it is virulent versus a vaccine type? Is that absolutely conclusive at this point?

TODD: Our lab -- our laboratory personnel feel that with the test that they have gotten positive now, that it is conclusively the organism bacillus anthracis. They cannot say with the testing that they have done so far that it is a virulent strain.

GUINN: Here's a great way of explaining. You got your phone with you?

TODD: I do.

GUINN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) give me an example of these three tests. The three tests are all individual tests. It's not one test and redo it, another test, same test, redo it, redo it. There are three separate tests, and they give you added information.

So, let me explain to you the way he did to me, and then we'll close this out. But it's a very good way to look at what these tests are doing for the process.

TODD: OK. This -- I came up with this last evening to try to explain to the governor and some of the other staff about these three tests, and so I invented this sort of on the spot. But if I were to show you my cell phone, and you only had this plane to look at, you can't see anything else but what's in this actual plane. Is this a cell phone or is it some other electronic piece of equipment?

You might say, well, looking at this, I see it's black, I see some gold pieces there. It could very likely be a cell phone, but it could be a number of other pieces of electronic equipment. By now, do another test, which shows it to you in this plane. It might tend to look a lot more like a cell phone now. You see the typical profile of a cell phone, you see a little nub here that's consistent with an antenna, but what if I showed you this profile and this nub wasn't there? You might say, well, boy, it lacks that antenna nub, so we're not sure if it's a cell phone now. It might be just a transistor radio or a personal digital assistant. Now, if I can flip it up and show it to you this way, even if I didn't have this antenna nub sticking up there, now you can see that it has got keys, it's got a screen, and you might be more inclined to call it a cell phone.

And that's in a way a fairly good analogy to explain how these test work, in that we're looking at the organism in several different ways, each of which tell us some different information and allow us to draw some conclusions as to how much it might or might not be anthracis.

GUINN: OK, thank you very much for being patient. Thank you.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We have been listening this morning, and looking at a show-and-tell as well -- although I should say this afternoon -- to Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn. He was explaining the final results that have come back from some testing there at laboratories from Carson City. The word on a test of an envelope and some material that was believed to have carried anthrax to the offices of Microsoft subsidiary in Reno, Nevada.

It turns out that the third test conducted on this envelope did turn up anthrax. They said the first two were sort of inconclusive. The third did come up with the anthrax bacteria. And we did get a little bit of a show-and-tell from the doctor who explained why three tests had to occur.

But we're joined now on the set by our doctor, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to give us some more information on that. Do you agree with the doctor? I saw you shaking your head when you were getting the cell phone explainer there.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a good explainer, and you know, he was talking a little bit about families, too. You have bacillus anthracis, which is a part of a family -- bacillus is sort of the name, and I was thinking of another example, sort of like looking for Leon and having the entire Harris family there. They may all look very similar, but we're looking for Leon, so first we can identify that it was in fact the Harris family, and then we found Leon. Same sort of testing with the bacteria, it's sort of a gradual process. But eventually, you come down to the conclusion, in fact, it is what you're looking for.

HARRIS: I got to tell you, if you did that, that's exactly what would happen. Just look for the Harris family.

But let me ask you about the number of tests. Is it unusual to have to go through three different kinds of tests like that to come up with a final, definitive answer?

GUPTA: Not at all. A lot of these tests do take a while and take repeating -- and repeating may not be the best word, but rather different tests to try to identify and confirm the presence of this organism in a bunch of different ways. Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, isn't something that we've seen in this country for quite some time, at least not in the inhaled form, and so this is new to a lot of the people, especially the people in the labs who are looking at this, confirming it through the fluorescent antibodies that you heard and all sorts of different sophisticated things.

These take a while both to perform and to -- and to do and to read, and so it does take some time.

HARRIS: OK. Some more details coming out of this Reno, Nevada press conference. This letter that had this anthrax in it did not contain any powder. What was in it was some pornographic magazine photos, and they appear to have been wet at one time, or at least -- or the check that was also inside may have appeared to be wet at one point, but there was no powder, so therefore officials think that that means there's a very, very low risk of anyone else or any spread of this bacteria.

GUPTA: That's right. And it's important to bear in mind again, spores that we're talking about here are very small, microns in size. You wouldn't see them with the naked eye. So, in this case, they may have been actually just a few of them coating the material that was inside this envelope, but not very many, and probably very low risk to anybody who may have handled it and certainly anyone outside of that area.

HARRIS: But we understand that there were some six people that did handle or were exposed to this. I want to talk to you in a second if we can about what may be happening with them right now.

But our James Hattori is in Carson City, Nevada. He was there at that press conference. I have heard his voice a couple of times asking questions of the governor. Let's check in with James now -- James.


It's just sort of a give you a little more detail on where the envelope was found. This is a building south of Reno, actually, it's an office complex where the Microsoft company runs some of its licensing operations. We're told that maybe 100 employees of Microsoft are based there.

Obviously, when the discovery of this letter and its contaminated -- potentially contaminated contents was made public, they immediately tried to figure out who might have come in contact, and health officials believe that only perhaps five or six people may have been in close proximity or handled the actual letter. Interestingly, the letter had been apparently lying around the office for a few weeks, and took them that long for them to get around to opening it and examining it and determining that there was indeed something amiss -- Leon.

HARRIS: You have to wonder if they would have panicked if they had known what exactly what was inside there, and had been sitting there for so long. James, one quick one, any idea how soon we will get any word on results? I understand the samples are on their way here to Atlanta.

HATTORI: Your guess is as good as mine. And perhaps Dr. Gupta could add as well, if the samples are being apparently as the governor says in transit to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta as we speak, so that means they won't get there until, you know, early this evening your time. How long these tests take is probably better left to the experts than for me to guess.

HARRIS: Well, since you suggested it, that's just what we will do. James Hattori in Carson City, thank you.

Let's ask Dr. Gupta about that. Two questions, quickly, what's happening with the six people who were exposed, what kind of process or procedure will they be going through, and the samples that are sent down to CDC here in Atlanta, what's happening with them?

GUPTA: Right. Well, first of all, with the people, you want to make sure they don't have any continued bacteria on them. As the governor was saying, it involves usually just making sure they're completely clean. Before that, sometimes they will actually take some scrapings to see if they can find the presence of the bacteria. What we are trying to do prevent here is the cutaneous, or the skin version of the bacteria. Not a very deadly thing, usually something that's very treatable. And I'm sure they will be started on treatment as well if they have presence.

The testing is basically to confirm which strain of bacteria we are talking about here. There are different strains of bacillus anthracis. To make it a little bit more confusing even, trying to figure out where this strain came from and to do any further testing that they may try to find that.

HARRIS: And that would be the DNA type testing?

GUPTA: Again, yeah, DNA type testing. Sophisticated tests here. They may take a while. Just like the other tests, they may need to be confirmed, second test, and they may need to be actually done in more than one laboratory, so a process that may not take -- may take longer than you think.

HARRIS: Interesting. OK, thank you very much. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, appreciate the insight and the expertise there. We will talk with you about this and other things, doc, more in the future.




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