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Anthrax Investigation

Dr. Ken Dretchen
Director, Georgetown University Bio-Security Institute
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; 2:00 PM

Three separate mail facilities in the Washington metropolitan area are now being evaluated for possible biological contamination -- the Pentagon facility where a sample tested positive, the V Street center and a Department of Defense mailroom on Leesburg Pike in Fairfax County where hundreds of people underwent a lockdown yesterday after a sensor was triggered.

Read the story:Pentagon Mail Facility Tests Positive for Anthrax (Post, March 15)

Dr. Ken Dretchen, director of the Bio-Security Institute at Georgetown University and consultant for the Department of Homeland Security, was online Tuesday, March 15, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the discoveries and to explain the method of treatment for those exposed.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Dayton, Ohio: Dr. Dretchen -- will DNA typing or other intensive analysis be useful here in determining whether there's a link between this anthrax incident and the one in 2001? Or is the genetic variation in anthrax samples too low? Thanks.

Dr. Ken Dretchen: The situation is that by the test that they use, which is the DNA Typing Test, can tell us about the specifics of this strain of anthrax. It is conceivable but it would be difficult to make that link, but it's possible.


Texas: Anthrax seems to be yet another "weapon of mass destruction" that, in actual use, seems to be considerably less deadly than plain old high explosives. Somewhat deadly, yes (people have died of it); extraordinarily deadly, clearly not.

In your expert opinion, what is the right level of concern to have with regard to anthrax?

Dr. Ken Dretchen: You are correct but it is one of many agents that are in an arsenal of these weapons of mass destruction. They can include explosives, chemicals and biologic agents. Anthrax has been used for many years -- almost a century -- as a toxic agent because it produces a progressive respiratory distress which, left untreated, can be fatal. Fortunately, with the use of modern antibiotics it can be brought under control.


McLean, Va.: Did the investigation of the first anthrax cases discover anything? I have the feeling the whole case was shoveled under the rug too soon.

Dr. Ken Dretchen: I can't speak to the criminal aspect of the case but it did verify that aerosolize anthrax was in fact the agent that produced the toxicity at the postal station.


Arlington, Va.: Hello and Thank you for the discussion.

The Skyline complex is surrounded by condominiums. Should the residents worry if active anthrax is found?

Dr. Ken Dretchen: I don't believe so. First of all, I think we're looking at an amount of anthrax that is extremely small. Second, it is not even confirmed yet that the agent was in fact anthrax. The initial screening was positive. The second screen was inconclusive and the third screen is going on right now which will be confirmatory one way or the other.

Most importantly, the mail was irradiated prior to entry into the facility which would have rendered it harmless. So all in all, I would say that for the people outside the immediate complex there should be no issues.


Morrisville, N.C.: The fact that sensors in totally separate locations independently and contemporaneously detected anthrax would seem to be extremely strong evidence that this isn't just another false alarm. The PCR test seems to confirm this. Is there any way this ISN'T the "real deal" this time? Could other species of bacteria have both set off the sensors and shown up as anthrax using PCR?

Dr. Ken Dretchen: It is possible. None of the sensor technologies that we have today are 100 percent effective and the same system of detection was used in all of the facilities because it's the same throughout the postal network. So therefore anything that would trigger one system off would trigger off a second system.

The other aspect, as we said before that we should make clear, is that there are many different strain of anthrax, only a few of which are toxic. As a matter of fact, anthrax is very common in the soil surrounding most houses. So it is conceivable that the sensors were alerted by a non-virulent strain.


Anonymous: After inhalation exposure, how quickly do anthrax symptoms become apparent? What are the symptoms?

Dr. Ken Dretchen: Virtually within a day or so you would start to see mild cold or flu-like sympton that would continue to progress. You would start getting some real respiratory distress that could lead to a fatality.

On the other hand, if we begin treatment, even as late as three of four days after the exposure, we can stop the progression. This is a very important point, that we can stop the progression. People should not alarmed because the treatment is quite effective.


Burke, Va.: How soon can conclusive test results be expected for the Leesburg Pike facility and what action must be taken following the results ... positive or negative?

Dr. Ken Dretchen: It's my understanding that the samples are out now being tested by the most confirmatory test available, which is actually growing the bacteria in culture and seeing what they look like. That usually takes about 48 hours.

Assuming that it's positive, then what will happen is that the HAZMAT teams will have to come in a basically clean the area and disinfect the area. What they will do after that is continue to monitor air samples throughout the building to make sure that all of the anthrax has been eradicated.

If it's negative, there's no action to be taken and the buildings can be reopened.


Manassas, Va.: Who ultimately makes the decision to prescribe antibiotics to those individuals potentially effected? How are the antibiotics administered?

Dr. Ken Dretchen: The only individuals authorized to prescribe are physicians. Assuming that an individual either went to their private physician or to a hospital, it would be the doctor who would prescribe the medication. There are several highly effective antibiotics and in the most severe cases of the disease the medication would have to be continued for 60 days. However, after just a few days all symptoms would be gone. Because we worry about reinfection, we keep people on antibiotics for a long duration.


Centreville, Va.: I work in one of the buildings adjacent to the DoD mail facility on Leesburg Pike. Was keeping us "locked down" in our building yesterday for close to 6 hours putting as at an increased risk of exposure? I would've assumed that if there was any sense of a possible contamination, that they would've wanted to evacuate as many people from the building as soon as possible.

Also, would this pose any risk to my family once I returned home? I followed all of the precautions regarding my clothes, showering, etc.. but am still worried about transfer. What about my vehicle, that was located in the central parking facility shared by the building where the mailroom was located?

Dr. Ken Dretchen: More likely than not they would've shut down the air handling system in the building so that the bacteria would have remained confined to the mailroom area and not traveled to other rooms in the building.

Again, anthrax is not really communicable from person to person. So taking the precautions of washing clothing and potentially all exposed areas of the body should have taken care of potentially and remaining bacteria that were present.

It's highly unlikely that bacteria would have entered the car simply because it was just sitting there.


Manassas, Va.: OK ... but we are hearing reports that certain people working in the effected facilities have been prescribed CIPRO. In these particular cases who made the call regarding who should take the drug and for how long? Are prescriptions being handed out at the work site, and if so by who the CDC?

Dr. Ken Dretchen: More likely than not it was probably done on the advice of the CDC through the physicians who were part of the first responder team and they prescripted CIPRO which is highly effective against anthrax toxicity. And this would have been more as a precaution than anything else.

Please recall that this was the same procedure used three years earlier.


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