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  Fears of Global Anthrax Threat Grow

By Gary Schaefer
Associated Press Writer
Saturday, Oct. 20, 2001; 11:17 a.m. EDT

TOKYO –– Anthrax scares stranded passengers, emptied buildings and mobilized biohazard teams around the world on Saturday as Argentina announced the second confirmed case outside the United States of mail contaminated with the bacteria.

The New York Times also said its office in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, received a letter postmarked in New York City that showed traces of anthrax in preliminary tests, but Brazilian authorities on Saturday called it a false alarm.

Most of the hundreds of reports worldwide of tainted letters and suspicious powders have been quickly dismissed as hoaxes, and pranksters have been detained in Australia, the Netherlands and Spain.

But on Friday, Argentine Health Minister Hector Lombardo held a nationally televised news conference to announce that a travel brochure mailed from Florida to a house in Buenos Aires tested positive for anthrax spores.

The brochure, which advertised a Caribbean cruise, was one of 600 letters turned over by residents for testing. Officials did not say when it was mailed or received, or what city it came from.

The recipient of the letter, who was identified only as "Patricia," said she thought it was suspicious that she would receive an advertisement by international mail. She was not infected.

The first such case was confirmed earlier this week in Kenya, where a doctor received an anthrax-tainted letter from Atlanta. The doctor and his family were in good health but were being treated with antibiotics.

In Australia, more than 100 passengers on a Virgin Blue flight were quarantined in Melbourne for over two hours after a powdery substance was discovered on an aircraft Friday night. An airline spokeswoman said the substance was removed from the aircraft but was later discovered to be harmless.

Backups at mail sorting centers were reported in New Zealand after white powder spilled from a postal bag at a center in Dunedin.

Firefighters, police and ambulance staff were called after two workers were exposed to the powder. The men were washed in a decontamination shower and taken to hospital by ambulance. The powder was later determined to be a harmless substance.

Malaysian postal officials planned to distribute gloves and masks to workers in some regions next week, media there reported.

Malaysia's home minister warned that the government would pursue pranksters blamed for anthrax scares that have sent six people to hospitals since Thursday. No one has tested positive for the bacteria so far.

"These people are taking advantage of the situation to create chaos," Deputy Home Minister Chor Chee Heung was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper. "Serious action will be taken, and this may not be limited to existing laws."

Elsewhere, police reported Saturday that a powder-laden letter sent to the U.S. consulate in the western Japanese city of Osaka was determined to be untainted.

Reports of suspicious letters revived fears in Japan, where 12 people died and thousands were sickened when a doomsday cult spread poison gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995. News media questioned Saturday whether authorities were prepared to fend off bioterrorist attacks.

"Delays in taking emergency countermeasures have been blatant," ran the headline in the mass-circulation Sankei newspaper, commenting on a government plan to earmark funds in next year's budget for smallpox vaccines and other treatments against biological weapons.

U.S. authorities disclosed two more cases of anthrax exposure this week – a New York Post newspaper employee and a New Jersey-area postal worker – bringing the total to eight.

Three staff members of the Rio de Janeiro office of The New York Times were tested for anthrax and given antibiotics after the office received a suspicious letter postmarked in New York, said Brazil's Health Ministry and Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis.

The letter, which was turned over to authorities unopened, was received by the office on Oct. 16. It was postmarked in New York City on Oct. 5 without a return address, the newspaper said.

The Times, citing Brazilian authorities, said that preliminary tests suggested spores consistent with anthrax were found on the letter. But a laboratory working for the government later said two tests had turned up nothing.

"There is no anthrax bacillus detected after two basic tests of bacteriology and culture," said Paulo Buss, president of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil's leading biochemical and research laboratory.

He said the laboratory had tested 60 suspicious letters and found no evidence of anthrax.

In Croatia, employees were evacuated Saturday from a floor of the building housing Jutarnji list, the country's leading newspaper, after delivery of a letter containing a white powder. Another newspaper, Slobodna Dalmacija, was told by postal workers that an X-ray check showed a letter addressed to it contained a suspicious powder.

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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