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Anthrax Scare: Employee at CBS News Tests Positive for Skin Form of Anthrax

Aired October 18, 2001 - 09:34   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We have gotten word that an employee at CBS News has tested positive for the skin form of anthrax. The employee worked in anchor Dan Rather's office. We are endeavoring to get more information for you this morning. That comes on the heals of course of someone being treated for anthrax as well, an NBC News employee, and then you no doubt have heard about the 7-month-old baby boy at NBC who was visiting his mother's workplace, who somehow contracted -- or at least was exposed to anthrax. He is being treated with antibiotics, and we are told he is doing much better.

Let's head to Capitol Hill, where Kate Snow is standing by, where they also have some worries of their own, after word that more than 30 people tested positive for exposure to anthrax. You might remember the House decided to close up shop until Tuesday, while the Senate is staying open for business.

Let's go to Kate Snow's report now.


KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): First the numbers.


REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: Twenty-nine or 30 people who have tested positive.

SEN. THOMAS DASCHLE (D-SD), MAJORITY LEADER: Thirty-one people now have had positive nasal swabs.

SNOW: By the end of the day, the tally was 31 -- 31 people exposed, but not infected. But where was the anthrax exactly? Early on, House speaker Dennis Hastert set off alarms with this statement.

HASTERT: And the discovery that this stuff has gotten into the ventilation system. It's going through the tunnels. It was in, you know, the system of those buildings.

SNOW: Two hours later, that was batted down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have no positive tests, no positive indication of contamination spread within the vent system.

SNOW: Even another senator didn't get the message.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's my understanding as well that only one spore found in the HVAC system. Durbin was corrected. He later told CNN, "I'm getting out of the spore business."

SNOW: Just about the same time, House speaker Hastert was trying to clarify his earlier comments.

HASTERT: Sometimes you said -- get misquoted. I said the possibility of the tunnels and in the ventilation system.

SNOW: But there's more confusion. At the same news conference, minority leader Dick Gephardt defined the anthrax in question.

GEPHARDT: ... that is a higher grade, weapon grade kind of anthrax.

DASCHLE: In all the briefings that I have been in attendance, in which I have been in attendance, not once has anyone used the term "weapons grade."

SNOW: All the information and counterinformation not very reassuring to hundreds of Capitol staffers who have been tuning in and lining up to be tested. Late in the day, more questions. If the anthrax didn't get into the ventilation system, then how did staffers in Senator Russ Feingold's office test positive for exposure? The answer, according to final briefing of the day, maybe it traveled through open doors and stairwells. But even that isn't a sure bet.

(on camera): And it won't get any easier to sort it all out. House and Senate office building closed down now for environmental testing. And the results of those swab test taken on some 2,000 people due back in the next couple of days.

Kate Snow, CNN, Capitol Hill.


ZAHN: All right, here's what we know about this anthrax scare at CBS. Not only is CNN confirming this information, but of course we had to get this from CBS, but CBS News is now saying that an employee in Dan Rather's office has tested positive for the skin form of anthrax. This comes on the heels of the scare yesterday at Governor Pataki's office. Preliminary tests of some bacteria in one of his offices showed the presence of anthrax. More testing will be done. But the governor himself saying he believes the testing will confirm the presence of the bacterium.

Just to give you some perspective on this, all the major news organizations have had their mailrooms tested over the past week after the NBC scare, looking for any signs of this powdery substance, looking for any evidence that anyone had been exposed to this stuff.

CBS News now confirming that an employee in Dan Rather's office has tested positive for the skin form of anthrax. Now having worked in that building, I know Dan Rather has a couple of offices. One very close to the newsroom, one a floor above. So as we get a little bit more information, we might be able to determine who else could potentially have been exposed to this anthrax.

Let's go to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who's standing by in Atlanta, to, unfortunately, give us even broader perspective of what we are dealing with here.

Sanjay, I think we should repeat some of the reporting we learned earlier today now, that a link has been established between the anthrax found in the letter sent to New York and the one sent to Florida. What do you think we're looking at here?

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: A lot of tests are started to come back now. We certainly had some field tests, as they were called, performed in the field. And as we've heard, a lot of times these are false positives. Some of these are even being confirmed now as being true or false. And now we're actually being able to go back and look at some of the DNA analyses between these different types of bacteria and finding out how identical they are.

What we're finding out is that they are similar, at least in Florida and New York. Some are enough to be called that by the pathologist that are examining that, and that's based on the DNA analysis. They appear to be naturally occurring bacteria, which means that they hadn't been genetically manipulated in some way. It doesn't mean that they weren't put for the purpose of mischief. It doesn't mean that they weren't weaponized or the spores weren't made small in some way, but it just means that they weren't manipulated. That's what we know at this point, Paula. These test results continue to float in, though.

ZAHN: Well, I think that's a very interesting point you are making, because at a time when we are all shocked with what we see at bottom of the screen, that a CBS News staffer who worked for Dan Rather has now tested positive for the skin form of anthrax, you know, you said we're waiting for these test results, it makes you wonder, though, now that we know most of the news organizations have much firmer regulations in place about the handling of the mail, when this person might have been exposed. to it. It could have been as long as how many weeks ago, Sanjay?

GUPTA: Well, that's right, Paula. You know, people talk about these spores being able to last in the body up to 60 days. Statistically speaking, it's usually 2-7 days after an exposure where you might start to see anything, but that would be symptoms, in which we haven't seen here. I want to add that we haven't seen symptoms in the CBS employee for sure or in some of the other people that we've been talking about. But the time period can be very, very sort of flexible, from 2-60 days.

ZAHN: Sanjay, I just learned, as you were speaking, that the mayor of New York City will be holding news conference as close to 10:00 as he can get, at the time when Tom Ridge will holding his first briefing for reporters. so we will have dueling news conferences there, but perhaps the mayor will help us better understand what has taken place at CBS.

Let's walk through this very slowly, Sanjay. You know, we know that anthrax was found on the skin of assistant who worked for Tom Brokaw at NBC, and then over at ABC, a 7-month-old baby boy being treated for exposure to anthrax. And as far as we can determine, no one understands what the source of the anthrax was. And now this. Any insights on that?

GUPTA: I want to point out that we're talking about cutaneous anthrax, again. We've talked about it several times in the past, but it's worth pointing out that this is a very -- the least severe form of the anthrax. This isn't the form that Mr. Stevens had in Florida. Cutaneous anthrax typically just causes ulcers, always treatable. Only a problem if not treated. We are certainly not going to have any untreated people here.

With the ingestinal form, that's a very rare form, the kind that you can follow. Hardly ever see that. It can cause nausea and vomiting. A little bit more of a problem...

ZAHN: Hey, Sanjay, sorry to cut you off here, will you hold on just for one second. Jason Carroll apparently has a statement that CBS just put out.

Jason, can you share that with us now?

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: absolutely. Paula, as you said, Andrew Hayward, president of CBS News, has released statement with regards to this new case that we've seen at CBS. He says that in fact a woman there, an employee for Dan Rather in his office has tested positive for a skin form of anthrax, the cutaneous form of the disease, which you were just talking about. He says here in his statement that she is being treated with antibiotics, and that she is expected to make a full recovery.

In fact, Mr. Hayward says that this woman says that she feels fine. Hayward also speaking -- will be speaking with authorities about how to handle this current situation. He'll be speaking with the mayor's office, he'll be speaking with the FBI and all the other officials that have been involved in the previous investigation into anthrax that we've seen here in New York City.

In the meantime, Andrew Hayward also says that in terms of the CBS employees, he says, look, it's safe for you to go back to work while we are conducting this investigation.

As you said, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is expected to hold a press conference at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Perhaps we will get more details about what has happened at CBS.

To recap, this is a cutaneous form of anthrax, which is easily treated with antibiotics, and I heard you say earlier, we've seen two other such cases dealing with cutaneous anthrax: one, the assistant to Tom Brokaw over at NBC, after she apparently opened some sort of suspicious letter, and then another case at ABC. We have a 7-month- old baby boy, the son of an ABC News producer, and investigators are still trying to determine the source of anthrax there at ABC.

But in all cases, all of these people, these three people, are all taking antibiotics, and as best we can tell, they are all expected to make full recovery. So once again, the mayor is expected to speak at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Hopefully, Paula, we will be able to get more information about this latest incident -- Paula.

ZAHN: We have a tricky challenge here, Jason, because Governor Tom Ridge, the new director of Homeland Security Office will be expected to speak at the same time. We will see if they flux those numbers at all. We will try to keep you up to date on both of those briefing to go on.

Jason, back to you in a little bit. Thanks for the update.

Let's quickly back to Sanjay for the confirmation that Andrew Hayward, the president of CBS News, just gave us, that in fact a female employee at CBS News is being treated for the skin form of anthrax.

I was trying to point out that -- and I guess this helps me understand, that having worked there. I know Dan Rather has two separate offices. One that is off the newsroom. One that is a more private office. But the point being, even if people in the newsroom were to scurry by the letter, we're not talking about their getting sick from just passing by, based on the fact this person has the skin form of anthrax, right?

GUPTA: No, certainly not, Paula, and it's an Important point. The inhalational version of anthrax, the one that really does make you quite sick, requires thousands and thousands of spores to be inhaled. The cutaneous version doesn't require as many, but it's also not something you pick up just by scurrying by, as you say, the area where that -- where the spores may have been, so relatively safe.

ZAHN: All right, doctor, please stand by.

Let's bring Susan Candiotti into the mix here to see what new information she has learned, the most significant being about the strain of anthrax, right, found in two of the letters, one to New York and one to Florida?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Paula. And we hope to be able to find out more information about that in the coming days, because the sample taken of the anthrax strain found in the letter mailed to Senator majority leader Tom Daschle is currently on its way from military laboratory at Ft. Detrick, Maryland to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Scientists there will try to find out if there is a match between the anthrax found in Senator Daschle's letter and the strains already discovered in the NBC letter, as well as the strains in Florida.

You might recall that preliminary test now show that there us appear to be a match between the Florida strains and the NBC letter sent to New York. So if they are able to make a link among all three, that could provide another important set of clues to investigators, and they are going to be relying obviously on a lot of scientific research here, to determine the source of the strain, where it could have been coming from, either domestically or overseas, in what kind of laboratory. At this time, we understand according to sources, the FBI is already beginning a search to determine where this very pure strain form of anthrax that was found in the Daschle letter might have come from. There are only so many laboratories in the U.S. where it could have come from, as well as overseas. And there are only so many people who have the capability to manufacture or to produce this kind of strain. It might also have been stolen from some place.

So everything on the table right now. What we do know...

ZAHN: Carry on, Susan.

CANDIOTTI: Well, according to sources, they're very, very intrigued by the pure form of anthrax found in Daschle letter, because as Dr. Sanjay was putting out, was talking about a little bit earlier, it's very finely milled. The particles were small enough, it would appear to have been more easily inhaled and lodged into the lungs, and we are hearing from sources that the Daschle anthrax measured 1-2 microns. The best way to describe it, very, very, very tiny particles. We understand that they would have to measure anywhere between one and five microns to have the capabilities to be small enough to be inhaled and lodged into the lungs.

So we hope in the coming days to be able to learn more about this. Remember, this is a apparently different at the present time, we think, from the strains found in Florida and New York. Still waiting for more information about that. But that apparent match. You'll remember the strain in Florida was inhalation anthrax, and that took the life of photo editor Robert Stevens who worked at American Media, and that strain was also inhaled, according to the CDC, by another man who worked in the mailroom Ernesto Blanco, who is currently being treated at a Florida hospital. And there was also a case of exposure to a third employee who also worked in the mailroom -- Paula.

ZAHN: All right, Susan, let's leave it there for a moment. We need to take a short break here. Before we take a break, a quick reminder that Mayor Giuliani will be holding a news conference at the top of hour, so will Governor Tom Ridge, the head homeland security. CBS now confirming that a woman who works for Dan Rather contracted the skin form of anthrax, that she is being -- has been treated with antibiotics, and she is expected to do just fine.

More details on the other side. Don't go away.


ZAHN: All right, we continue to share breaking news with you this morning. If you are just joining us, an assistant to Dan Rather has now been tested and has tested positive for the skin form of anthrax. Her boss -- the boss over Dan Rather, Andrew Hayward, the president of CBS New confirming that she is currently taking antibiotics, she is expected to do well.

Now, Mayor Giuliani of New York City will be holding a news conference straight up at 10:00, hopefully to give more details on this case, and at the same time, Governor Ridge, who now heads up the Homeland Security Office will hold a news conference. Maybe one will be late, and we can bring both live. But at a minimum, we will go to one live and be able to reprise what is going on at the other news conference.

Let's go to Dr. Sanjay Gupta very quickly here to get a better perspective on this.

Once again, we're talking about the skin form of anthrax here. Now, is it possible some of us who handle mail don't know we have cuts on our hands, and we'd be vulnerable to this kind of thing happening if we work at places that could potentially be targeted?

GUPTA: Well, certainly, Paula, I think that people are thinking a lot more about that now. I myself am trying to handle mail -- making sure I don't have cuts on my hands, and things like that. But in addition to that, to point out still, even though we've seen cases here, it's still incredibly hard to get. Even if there is anthrax in the envelope, it's very hard to actually get what is known as cutaneous anthrax.

So there's a little bit of one, a little bit of the other there. A couple of things either side, but still difficult to get.

ZAHN: All right, Sanjay, we just learned another piece of information while you were chatting. We can now confirm that the woman noticed a bug bite, this assistant to Dan Rather, on her chin, and went for testing a week ago.

Now I think you intelligently pointed out, this would be the time that we're just beginning to get back test results of many folks who worked in the media that potentially could have been exposed to this stuff in a newsroom or mailroom, right?

GUPTA: Right, exactly. A bug bite is known, Paula, as exactly, how it usually would start off. It might proceed from there to a little bit of an ulceration, but again, all that very easily treated with the antibiotics that we've been talking so much about.

ZAHN: Even after you see a lesion, so it's not too late, even if you see a lesion showing?

GUPTA: That's right. In the case of cutaneous anthrax, even after the lesion is showing, the antibiotics are very effective, almost 100 percent effective.

ZAHN: OK, hang on. I'm getting some marching orders. I think we have new information.

We are going to will take a very short break. But before we go to break, Sanjay, I was going to quickly confirm what we know. CBS confirming that an assistant to Dan Rather has the skin form of anthrax. She is being treated with antibiotics. Mr. Hayward says that she will do well. The mayor of the city holding a news conference just five minutes from now. We will be covering that live, also Governor Ridge of the Homeland Security Office will be covering a -- holding -- briefing reporters at the same time. We will bring you up to date on all of those aspects of this story. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.




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