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Growing Number at Office of Sen. Daschle Tests Positive for Anthrax Exposure

Aired October 17, 2001 - 11:01   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: A growing number of people associated with Sen. Tom Daschle's office is testing positive for anthrax exposure.

With the exact number and what is going to happen on Capitol Hill, let's bring in our Kate Snow.

Kate, good morning.

Good morning, Daryn.

KATE SNOW, CNN ANCHOR: Sources tell CNN earlier that it was about 20 people. We now know from House Speaker Dennis Hastert that it is 29 people, to be exact, who have been identified as testing positive for anthrax exposure. Sen. Daschle, we understand, is meeting with senators, started that meeting about a half hour ago. All 100 senators were invited to be at this meeting, to discuss where they should go from here.

The U.S. House of Representatives has already taken steps. They have decided that they will wrap up their business rather early today and take a break until Tuesday afternoon. I just spoke with one source who was explaining to me that the problem was that they learned this morning that there were traces of anthrax found in the ventilation system in the Hart Office Building, which is where Sen. Daschle's office is.

I might note that that building at this hour is still open and still open to the public. Traces found in the ventilation -- also traces found, we're told, in the mail room of the Senate Hart Office Building.

Speaker Hastert referred to that in his remarks a short time ago.


REP. DENNIS HASTERT (R), ILLINOIS: Because of packages that went through the Senate machines, they did find a spore on them. They did find a spore going through the ventilation system in the Senate. And to give people peace of mind, plus the safety of members and staff, that we continue to do our work in Congress, we think it is precautionary and prudent to make sure everything is OK on the House side as well. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: We've just learned that Sen. Lieberman, who was holding a hearing that we've been covering here on CNN on bioterrorism, has decided to recess that hearing, and is taking Secretary Tommy Thompson to the meeting I just referred to, of all of 100 senators, so that Secretary Thompson can talk to the senators about how they should proceed.

Also wanted to tell you that the House is deciding to recess until Tuesday. This is a joint decision by Speaker Hastert and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who says he too believes this is a prudent action, so that they can so to spend the next few days analyzing the situation and doing a security sweep.


REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D), MISSOURI: I think this is the cautious and intelligent and proper, prudent thing to do. We don't think there's other problems, but we think that in the world we live in today, this is proper way to conduct business.


SNOW: Again, that hearing that had been going on in the Senate Government Reform Committee was being held by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairing the hearing, and at that hearing testifying was Tommy Thompson, the Health and Human Services secretary. We're told that hearing has just broken up so that they can go over to the other meeting that is going on, of all the U.S. senators trying to determine whether they should adjourn this Senate, one source telling me that he suspects that will do the same thing that the House of Representatives has done, and, just as a precaution, clear out of this area, clear out of Capitol Hill, and go home to their districts for some time so that they can better assess the physical security of the U.S. Capitol and its surrounding buildings.

KELLAN: Kate, a couple of things you'll have to help me understand here. First of all, the anthrax found in the office of Sen. Tom Daschle and in the ventilation system of the Senate Hart Office Building -- why is it that it's the House that is adjourning, and not the Senate side?

SNOW: That's a good question. I asked the same one myself, Daryn. The reason is probably just timing. It's my understanding that everyone -- the Senate and the House leaders -- this morning met with President Bush, and at that time, they knew that these test results were coming back positive. At that time, there was some discussion about what they should do next. The House moved rather quickly and took action to adjourn. The Senate, meantime -- Sen. Daschle, who leads the Senate, went to meet with some of the people who have been exposed, some of those 29 people who have come back with positive test results. He went to talk with them. Then he went to meet with other senators at the meeting he's in now, to talk to the other 99 senators up here. So it may be just a matter a little bit of delay on the Senate side. Again, we anticipate the Senate will probably take this same sort of preventative and precautionary measures, in adjourning, that the House is taken. They haven't announced that publicly, though, just yet -- Daryn.

KAGAN: The other thing I understand, Kate, if this is serious enough -- and obviously it sounds like it is -- to close down the House and the Senate up until Tuesday, why not close down the place right now? Why are they waiting until the end of business today? It seems like you'd want to get out of Dodge right now.

SNOW: It's tough to answer. But I think we should be a little cautious about explaining this. We have two people telling us -- one source of mine and also Dennis Hastert, the House speaker -- that there have been some spores detected in the ventilation system in one particular building. That doesn't necessarily mean they need to clear out the entire U.S. Capitol, for example. So that may be part of the discussion right now.

I also want to know the 29 people who have tested positive are all people, we understand, who were in the area, probably in the office at the time that the letter was opened. So they were more directly affected by the letter and the contents of the letter than anyone else who's on Capitol Hill right now.

Clearly, there's a lot of concern, and people are still being tested. There are people in line right now to be tested to have swabs taken, just to be sure that they're okay. But most of theme people were far enough away that they weren't in the immediate vicinity. Those are the test results that we have gotten back this morning, the people who were immediately there in the office, again, 29 of them testing positive for exposure.

KAGAN: Understandable. It seems to me that when you hear there might be traces of it in the ventilation system, the possibility -- we're not saying this happened -- that this could have spread past Sen. Daschle's office would be there. It seems to me that line of people who want to get tested would get even longer.

SNOW: It has. It has. I talked to the producer who was over there just a short time ago, and she said initially when the reports started surfacing, about an hour ago now, that people were very noticeably anxious. They had gotten word, and the line had grown. Indeed, the line still exists. They're still being tested even as we speak.

One other note, Daryn. They've closed down the corner of the office building that's really most affected, the whole corner of that building where Sen. Daschle's office is; from floor one to floor eight has been shut off. That's the area where the ventilation system is connected. The air conditioning runs through that part of that building, and it's all on one loop in that part of the building, and that's why that part of building has been shut down, as a precaution.

KAGAN: Understandable. One more question for you, Kate. Clearly, they're not just shutting down the House side and perhaps the Senate this weekend. They're going to be doing something. Do you know what they will be doing?

SNOW: Speaker Hastert described it as a security sweep. He said we want to go through all of the House office building and make sure that the environments are physically OK, that the environment is safe. I'm looking for his words; he said they will be screening this weekend through Monday, and he just described it as an environmental screening. I'm not sure exactly how that will take place, but I know that they do have a mechanism already in the mail rooms here on the Senate and House sides that can screen for biological and chemical presence of materials, so perhaps will do something like that in all of the offices up here.

KAGAN: Understandable. Kate Snow, calling on your congressional expertise and the engineering degree -- you didn't know you were going to need to cover Capitol Hill as well. Kate, thank you -- Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Daryn, clearly there are open questions at this point, questions for so many investigators, poring through not only Washington, but New York City, and also southern Florida.

Susan Candiotti is tracking all of this with us now.

Susan, good morning to you.


One of the difficulties facing investigators is to try to figure out what strains were involved and if there are any links between any of these anthrax cases. A government official tells me that it appears as though -- this is not set in stone -- they may be looking at two groups of situations, the cases in Washington and New York, and the cases in Florida.

Of those in Florida, we will remind you that there was Robert Stevens, who died of anthrax inhalation; he was photo editor at American Media in Boca Raton, the headquarters there. Another man is being treated there, who worked in the mail room, for anthrax inhalation as well. And you have another person who was exposed to the anthrax. It was found on a computer keyboard at the AMI offices, as well as a small amount in the mail room and in the mail processing area of a post office in Boca Raton that was not accessible to the public. This is a post office where sometimes people would go from AMI to pick up mail and bring back to the corporate offices.

That might be a different grouping it appears, according to the government official, than the cases that are occurring in Washington and New York. We want to point out to you in that case the letter to Sen. Tom Daschle and the letter to NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. As we know, there are reported similarities between those two letters. The handwriting is said to be similar, the postmarks both come from Trenton, New Jersey, and both contained threatening messages including references to Allah.

In terms of the Daschle anthrax, sources are telling us, and Sen. Daschle himself is saying, that it is very potent anthrax. Other sources describe it as very sophisticated; very virulent; "good stuff," in the words of one government official. The sophistication of it might indicate that it is so specialized it might have come from overseas. However, investigators are not narrowing focus at this time. There is still a possibility -- they're not excluding any at this point -- it might have been acquired from over there. It might have been acquired commercially from labs in the United States while that was still possible to do. Or it could even have been manufactured, it is possible, in a homemade laboratory; one person compared to trying to create a laboratory in your bathtub here in the United States. It could involve a group of individuals or could involve a single person who could be behind it.

These are the many, many things they are looking at, Bill, and there's no telling where the investigation will lead, at this point.

HEMMER: Let's see if we can flesh out a few more of the items. Richard Butler was on "CNN LIVE" a few hours ago, and he talked about this form of anthrax that was found in Washington, in Tom Daschle's office, as almost being ground to a very fine powder. Do we know how this the done? How the process is carried out? How easy or how difficult that is?

CANDIOTTI: We know that it's difficult. As to how precisely how it is done I cannot tell you. However, that finely ground material lends some experts to say that might be used to make biological weapons.

Again, no one is willing to say that is the case here for sure. And they're trying to figure out if any similarities between the Tom Brokaw - let's call it that -- anthrax found, in a letter sent to him, as opposed to the anthrax found in Sen. Daschle's office.

HEMMER: So where do investigators go? When you talk to the people involved in this, where do they start looking, and where do they start searching?

CANDIOTTI: They have, certainly, their own chemists, who specialize in this research. They also consult with laboratories around the country, including one in Flagstaff, Arizona, Northern University there, that they can talk with, because they conduct research into this; the laboratory at Fort Detrick, in Maryland; and they, of course, have people they can consult with overseas as well.

HEMMER: And the people you talked to, are they also concerned, at this time, with the possibility that more anthrax letters could turn up at any point, in any part of country?

CANDIOTTI: Certainly. As a matter of fact, they're getting so many calls all the time, many of them hoaxes -- 2,300 incidents so far. And it's keeping them very, very busy, because the FBI and the U.S. attorney general have consistently said they intend to keep treating each one of these incidents very seriously, even though a majority of them are turning out to be false alarms or hoaxes.

HEMMER: Susan, thank you. Susan Candiotti, watching the investigation front in Washington for us this morning.

Now Daryn, with more.

KAGAN: A lot more medical questions people have as the numbers rise, the number of people in Sen. Tom Daschle's office that have been exposed to anthrax. What does that mean to them, and what does that mean to you at home?

Let's bring back in Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to answer a lot of these questions.

Good to see you again.

First of all, the people who have been exposed have been given a three-day course of the antibiotic Cipro. Why three days?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think they're following a very logical sort of scheme here. Everyone is getting tested and being presumed to be exposed until the tests come back as negative. Those people that come back positive can continue the antibiotics; people who come back negative stop it at that time. But really, it's prudent to go ahead and start antibiotic, since we have heard about the fact if you start the antibiotics early, they're going to be much more effective. And I think that's the reasoning for the three-day supply initially.

KAGAN: What are some of the side effects of Cipro?

GUPTA: Ciprofloxacin is not an antibiotic that should be taken indiscriminately. It does have side effects to an individual. It, like a lot of antibiotics, it is a concept of if you kill some of the normal bacteria in your body, you may allow bacteria that don't respond to antibiotics to grow, and that could be a problem later down the line for an individual.

It could also be a problem later on down the line for a community; if you suddenly introduce large amounts of antibiotics to a community, months, perhaps years down the line, you might see more and more of these organisms that don't respond as well.

So I think doctors are trying to use judgment and not give the antibiotics unless there are some specific reasons to do so.

KAGAN: There has also been that concern is there enough to go around, and in light of that, we have heard about other drugs that might be used, including doxycycline and penicillin. How are those used, and are they effective?

GUPTA: The FDA studied -- and it's important to point out right off the top that anthrax isn't something we've seen a lot of, so a lot of the studies aren't there on large numbers of humans -- what we do know is ciprofloxacin is approved by the FDA for inhalation anthrax. The other two antibiotics, doxycycline and penicillin, are also approved, but not for the inhalation version, just for the cutaneous version, an important distinction here. Certainly, if it's the inhalation version that the people are concerned about, Cipro is the antibiotic of choice in this case.

KAGAN: Can Cipro treat all of it? Can it treat the cutaneous as well?

GUPTA: Cipro is a good antibiotic for all three versions. Penicillin and doxycycline are good only for the cutaneous version.

KAGAN: Getting back to the amount that's available. We were talking last hour about Bayer which holds the patent on Cipro coming out today and saying they are going to try as hard as they can to make a lot more of it and do it quickly.

GUPTA: They certainly talked about that. They were making 15 million pills a month before. They are going to rev that up to 60 million pills a months. That's four times the production. They're trying to cut down costs. We've talked to the representatives of Bayer from a five-day eight-hour work week to a 24-7, just like many of us are, Daryn.

Absolutely. It affects us here at CNN.

KAGAN: Explain to me. We have been talking live about the quality of this anthrax, weapons grade. Why is that important, from a medical standpoint? How can it affect you? Why would doctors need that information?

GUPTA: There are a lot of terms being thrown around here, and I think a lot of the terminology is new to everybody, including some of the experts in this field. We talked to a lot of microbiologists about this. Simply put, if you have a naturally-occurring strain of anthrax, you go ahead and grind that, dry that up, that process that's been described so many times to right particle side, not too big, not too small -- just the right particle size that could get into the lungs. Many refer to that as the process of weaponizing it.

It does not mean that the bacteria has been changed genetically in some way to make it more antibiotic resistant or something like that. That is a different process. The genetic manipulation of these strains of bacteria is a different process from the weaponizing of it. That is the way it's been explained to me. What we've heard from Richard Butler this morning was that these spores were ground up to a certain size that suggested that they were weapons grade, that a weaponizing process may have taken place here, again, to get it down to that size.

It's a technically challenging process, to get it down to that size while leaving the bacteria still active.

KAGAN: Just from a medical standpoint, it means that if it were smaller, you would be more likely to inhale it and develop anthrax?

GUPTA: That's right. The right size particles can get from your nose into your lungs. If they are too small, you'll breathe them in and breathe them right out. If they're just the right size, they'll make their way down into your lungs and release the toxins and cause all the problems we have been hearing anthrax can cause. KAGAN: Scary stuff, but trying not to alarm people out there, just giving the good information.

Dr. Gupta, thank you.

GUPTA: Thank you.

KAGAN: Bill.

HEMMER: Daryn, breakfast in Washington today, lunch in Sacramento, California, and then off to Shanghai for the president. However, he leaves behind a nation very nervous about anthrax.

At the White House, Kelly Wallace, at her this morning.

Kelly, on one point, Kate was talking last hour about the possibility of top congressional leaders meeting with the president today. Did that happen?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That did happen, Bill. There was this weekly breakfast, and it happened this morning, the president sitting down, having breakfast with the four congressional leaders. We are told during that breakfast meeting President Bush was fully briefed on the latest involving Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office, Sen. Daschle attending that breakfast.

The White House also tells us that President Bush was told as early as last night of the possibility that some staffers in Sen. Daschle's office could test positive for exposure to anthrax. Beyond that, though, Bill, the White House is not commenting other than to say that the president will be fully briefed, as you would expect, on this situation, as well as other cases involving anthrax, and of course, the military campaign against Afghanistan.

We do know, of course, as well, that secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson was on the Hill, testifying, this morning, and he advised lawmakers the administration would be asking for more than $1.5 billion. This money would mostly go to increasing the nation's stockpile of the antibiotic Cipro, used to treat anthrax, and also to accelerate the production of the vaccine for smallpox.

Here's Secretary Thompson from earlier this morning.


TOMMY THOMPSON, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: With the events of September 11 -- none of us could have expected them -- the president's called for an additional $1.5 billion in federal funding for those most areas critical to our ability to respond to bioterrorism.


WALLACE: We saw the president leave the White House shortly after 8:00 a.m., and on hand the four congressional leaders and Vice President Dick Cheney waving him off. His first stop will be Sacramento, California, where he will be addressing labor and business groups. We understand he will be giving a status report, a progress report, on this campaign against terrorism.

Now, Bill, it's not exactly clear if the president will mention the specific cases now involving Sen. Daschle's office. But we do understand, talking to senior aides, that he is likely to say what he has been saying over the past few days, encouraging Americans to return to what the White House calls a new normalcy, that Americans should be alert and vigilant, but that they should go on with their lives.

An interesting note, Bill, there was some discussion within the White House about whether it was appropriate for the president to go on this trip. He will be gone from the United States for about 4 1/2 days at a time when we have this military campaign against Afghanistan and more and more concerns about anthrax. The president commented a little bit about that debate in an interview with Asian editors yesterday. He said, quote, "I leave at a very difficult time in my country because of these terrorist attacks, the recent anthrax that has made in the news." On the other hand, he says, "I think it is very important for me to go, not only to discuss our economic interests, but to continue to talk about the war on terrorism.

So expect the president to focus on the economy, Bill, but also, in his face-to-face meetings with the leaders of Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan, trying to strengthen this anti-terrorism coalition.

Bill, back to you.

HEMMER: Indeed, we will hear more about this in the coming days and over the weekend. Kelly, thanks to you.




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