Third anthrax case confirmed

FBI: 'This is not a time for premature conclusions and inaccurate reporting'

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- A third employee of a supermarket tabloid publisher has tested positive for anthrax and the case has become the subject of a criminal investigation, authorities said Wednesday.

But FBI agent Hector Pesquera said there was no evidence linking the anthrax to a terrorist group and cautioned that ''this is not a time for premature conclusions and inaccurate reporting.''

The 35-year-old woman was being treated with antibiotics after a swab of her nasal passages found traces of anthrax. It was not immediately clear if she was hospitalized, and her condition was not known.

Pesquera said the anthrax contamination is limited to the Boca Raton headquarters of American Media. Anthrax killed a tabloid employee last week and found its way into the nose of mailroom co-worker.

U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis said the investigation would focus on how the anthrax got into the building -- and why.

Public health officials stressed that there is no public health threat from the anthrax, but the case has heightened fears of a biological attack. The statement from Lewis was the most definitive from federal authorities so far that the anthrax was the result of a criminal act.

Sun tabloid photo editor Robert Stevens, 63, died Friday of inhaled anthrax, a rare and particularly lethal form of the disease. Co-worker Ernesto Blanco, 73, has been in a Miami hospital since Monday after anthrax spores were found in his nose.

He was in good condition and has not been diagnosed with the disease.

Health investigators shut down the American Media building after finding traces of anthrax on the computer keyboard used by Stevens.

Pesquera said the latest victim worked in the general area of the other victims.

''This is so devastating to me and my company,'' American Media chief executive David Pecker said Wednesday night on CNN's ''Larry King Live.'' There has been speculation that the company's official-sounding name gave it a high profile, and Pecker said he thought his company was being targeted.

Florida health officials have said the bacteria in Stevens' blood responded to antibiotics, suggesting it was a naturally occurring strain rather than a laboratory-altered one.

A law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity that preliminary work on the anthrax that killed Stevens has found a possible match to a laboratory strain first isolated in Iowa. However, further tests are being done.

Authorities said the latest victim, who asked that her name be withheld, was one of more than 1,000 people tested by health officials for the presence of anthrax. Most have recently been inside the AMI building and most are still waiting for test results. Many were given supplies of antibiotics and told to come back for more tests later.

Debbie Bottcher, a proofreader for The National Enquirer, had a blood test Wednesday and will take another one in two weeks. She found the news that a third colleague was exposed to the disease ''unsettling.''

Bayer AG, Germany's biggest drug maker, said it will boost production of the anthrax antibiotic Cipro to meet surging U.S. demand. One of the leading U.S. distributors of the antibiotic, McKesson HBOC, said it has not encountered any shortages, though pharmacies are reporting low supplies.

''We're just taking our pills. That's all we can do,'' said Donnie Gilbert, an executive assistant at Star magazine.

''I'm as bewildered as the next person.''

The concern even spread to newsstands. American Media executives said they had received phone calls from supermarket chains and tabloid readers who were afraid they might come into contact with the bacteria while leafing through the paper.

Pecker cited the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in saying there is no danger to the public from handling newspaper.

The company's tabloids, including The Sun, are not printed in Florida.

In nearby Delray Beach, several hundred people attended a memorial service for Stevens. Anthrax was never mentioned, and speakers instead recalled his love of fishing and his perpetual smile.

Stevens was ''just a very, very decent human being,'' said Bennet Bolton, a senior writer for the National Enquirer. ''I don't think he ever had an unkind word to say to anybody, or even had a bad thought.''

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