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Senate Leaders Hold Press Conference to Address Anthrax Scare

Aired October 17, 2001 - 12:46   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Back to Washington. We have the audio problem fixed -- Jon Karl -- Jonathan.


I'm off camera because, as I think you can see, we have both the minority leader, Trent Lott, and the majority leader, Tom Daschle, about to come to the microphones.

The significant news I was trying to tell you before is that they believe that that initial report of 29 positive tests for anthrax exposure will be significantly lower once they get those final tests back. There is a real effort to turn the temperature down here on this story.

Senator Daschle coming to the microphone, coming over here to the Senate swamp site right off the Senate steps. And that is one of the messages being said here. That's why they have decided, Aaron, to keep the Senate open today, keep it open tomorrow. I've had two senators tell me, on the record, John Kerry and Joe Biden, that they believe that the House of Representative has overreacted by closing down. They have urged the speaker of the house to reconsider that. We have also learned that the speaker said he will not reconsider his decision. He thinks it is prudent.

And now here coming to the microphones, we have Tom Daschle and Trent Lott.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MAJORITY LEADER: We wanted to give you another update on our circumstances here at the Capitol.

I have had some opportunities to meet with my staff this morning, and I just want to report that in our office, room 509 of the Hart Senate Office Building, 31 people now have had positive nasal swabs. Not all of those are members of my staff. There were some Capitol Police involved.

There is a huge difference between a positive nasal swab, which only indicates exposure, of course, and infection. There is no evidence -- and I want to emphasize this -- absolutely no evidence of infection at this point.

All of those who have had this positive nasal swab have been on antibiotics now for some time, and the good news is that everyone will be OK. I am very confident about that, given the medication and the fact that it was provided early and it is continuing to be provided.

So we feel very good that circumstances are well in hand. As you know, a number of additional people have been tested, and those tests will be made -- I shouldn't say tested -- have been given these nasal swabs. There is a difference between tests and swabs, and some of the experts might address that.

But this effort will continue to go on. I feel extremely good about the process that we have employed all the way through this time, and we will talk a little bit more about that in just a moment.

I'm concerned for my staff. I'm angered that this has happened. But I feel very confident about those steps and about the fact that everyone will be OK. I am encouraged by the information we've been provided, and we will get into that a little bit more.

I want to talk just briefly about three other things. First of all, it is my strong determination, and Senator Lott's as well, that we will not let this stop the work of the Senate.

There will be a vote this afternoon. We will be in session and have a vote -- or votes tomorrow. And I am absolutely determined to ensure that the Senate continues to do its work.

Secondly, I want to accommodate those who are understandably interested in acquiring as much information about the environment in our Senate office buildings, and we will accommodate their needs and provide extra precautionary efforts to ensure that they can go in and check for additional environmental questions that we hope to resolve in the not-to-distant future.

And finally, I think it's really important to emphasize that we are going to work in concert with all of the medical personnel. We have the single best medical personnel in the world to address this. They've already come on site. We've been working very closely with the Department of Health and Human Services, and Scott Lillibridge will be here in just a moment to talk about their efforts. But we have extraordinary people doing all that they can to ensure that we can bring this matter to a successful conclusion.

With that, let me ask Senator Lott for his comments and I'll ask a couple of other people to make their initial report and we'll take your questions.

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MINORITY LEADER: There's not a lot I want to add to that. Just that Senator Daschle and I have stayed in close touch and we're working together to make sure that the people that work with us on Capitol Hill -- our constituents and the American people -- are properly informed about what is happening here.

I want to assure one and all that we're making sure that we work with the experts -- Some of them are here with us and can respond to your questions -- to take all prudent actions to make sure that our people are protected and that we have identified where the problems are. And we've taken actions to contain that and deal with it appropriately.

Also, I think we've made the right decision to stay in session here in the Capitol and have votes in the Senate this afternoon, and probably tomorrow also because there is no risks there in the Capitol. And we feel confident we can continue to get our work done while taking necessary precautions to protect the people that work with us.

DASCHLE: Let me ask Scott Lillibridge to provide additional technical information about our current circumstances.

DR. SCOTT LILLIBRIDGE, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: Thank you, I'm Scott Lillibridge, and I'm a special assistant with Secretary Thompson of Health and Human Services. And I work on the issues of national security and bioterrorism. I'd like to mention what we know at this time. Last Friday, there was a package delivered to Senator Daschle's office. This has been analyzed. People in that office have been identified and put under medical prophylaxis. There is a second site in the mail room where there is a positive environmental sample. And that in spite of the ongoing effort and environmental sampling surveillance and case planning and follow up, that is the sum of our knowledge.

At this time, one question might be, is anybody sick? Not that we're aware of.

Is this contagious at this time? No, it's not.

How will this unfold over the next two or three days and how will you get information? Let me just make it clear, the two ways: There will be an ongoing environmental survey that will not only look at the sites in question but will probably look at other sites. Although there have been a number of tests that have been done, those at this time are the only two sites where we have positive information. Indeed a nasal swab of a positivity does not indicate infection, it indicates an environmental exposure.

The second thing that will happen is that the CDC team that is working with Deputy Surgeon General Ken Mortsugoo (ph), I'd like to identify him, who will be on site working with the Office of Emergency Preparedness, will provide any information about prophylaxis, follow up, which people on whose staff need to be contacted, how that information will be distributed, and to provide ongoing information about issues ranging from everything from questions about your clothing and ongoing risks.

With that, I think, I'll close for now and leave this to talk a little more about the laboratory information, and turn this back to Senator Daschle.

Thank you.

DASCHLE: Let me also introduce Robert Gibbs. Robert is the program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. I've asked Mr. Gibbs to talk a little bit about, maybe, some of the confusion about what matter has actually been released outside the office. He's prepared to do that. ROBERT GIBBS, PROGRAM MANAGER, DEFENSE ADVANCED RESEARCH PROJECTS AGENCY: Hello. Good afternoon.

Just wanted to give you sort of a brief snapshot, not go into great detail of what we've been doing there. But we've, obviously, taken this seriously and we want to look at the environment throughout the area that we would expect to be exposed.

It was a letter that was delivered. There's no doubt about that. So we're following that letter backwards through the system. We're looking for places the letter has been. We're looking for the contamination that may have come from that. So we have taken samples in the mail room, where the mail is sorted. And indeed, we have found one positive environmental sample in that location.

We're also looking at the ventilation systems within the building. Those ventilation systems have been off since shortly after the letter was opened to minimize any further spread. Those systems are isolated from the rest of the building, at least within the ventilation system itself. So they've been off for all this time now.

We will be looking further at areas outside of the areas where we expect to find contamination. We'll expand this as necessary to be able to show that the contamination is not widespread, that it's where we expect it -- in the mail room, tracking the letter.

We have a good team on board. We're working with NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. They'll be performing our air sampling for us -- the additional air sampling that we need. We have the Centers for Disease Control on board. We have the Environmental Protection Agency supporting this.

We're coordinating with the people that have been working the issues in Florida, making use of what they have learned. The knowledge that they've gained there. So we've got an excellent team on board. We're preparing to do any decontamination that may be required in the areas, and continue our surveillance.

With that, I'll close and turn it back to Senator Daschle.

DASCHLE: If I could just emphasize: The only thing that, I think, ought to be, perhaps, restated is that this is an ongoing investigation. We don't have all the information. And so we can't provide you with all the answers.

There will be an effort to try to determine the degree to which other areas may have been contaminated. We have a fairly high degree of confidence that we will not find any, but we want to check just to be sure. that effort will go on for the next couple of days.

In the meantime, as I said, we will be in session, and we will also coordinate very closely with each one of our senators' staffs. There is a meeting scheduled for 1:00 this afternoon, and periodic updates and briefings will be made available as the situation warrants, certainly on a regular basis throughout the day.

With that, let me take your questions.

QUESTION: Is the House making a mistake in closing early? Does that send the wrong message?

DASCHLE: I don't know what time they're closing. I thought they were going to be in throughout the day and...

QUESTION: They're going to go home early. They're going to go home...


DASCHLE: They may have other reasons for that. All I know is that we're going to stay open.


QUESTION: ... the ventilation system, any tests that have come back or any positive hits on the ventilation system in the Hart Building?

GIBBS: We have taken test samples from within the ventilation system. The first series that came back, we have no positive tests, no positive indication of contamination spread within the vent system. We've taken additional samples. Those are still in for analysis. It takes some time to get these results back. We have no further information on those samples.


DASCHLE: We do not. We still don't have any idea.


DASCHLE: Well, I don't know that I'm capable of commenting on that right now. We'll leave that to the expert.

QUESTION: Yesterday you made some comments that gave people the impression that this anthrax that came to your office was finely milled, weapons-grade anthrax. Is that correct? Do we know that?

DASCHLE: I don't think I used the word weapons grade.


DASCHLE: And let me ask General Parker, who's the real expert on the issue, for his answer to that question.

GENERAL JON PARKER, MEDICAL RESEARCH AND MATERIAL COMMAND, FORT DETRICK, MARYLAND: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm Jon Parker. I command the Medical Research and Material Command in Fort Detrick.

Our job at Fort Detrick is to take samples and verify what it is and report back to our customers. On the samples that we took from Senator Daschle's office, it is indeed anthrax. We cultured it, and what we found out about it is it's sensitive. We culture it on a plate, and then we put antibiotics on that plate to see if it's sensitive to the antibiotics. This particular strain of anthrax is sensitive to all antibiotics; penicillin, all the way through ciprofloxacin. It's a very sensitive strain. We have not identified the strain at this time.

QUESTION: What about the form though? Was it primarily milled?

PARKER: I can't answer that. I have looked at the specimen under the microscope, both the electron microscope and the scanning microscope, and I can say that the sample was pure spores. I can't say anything about the milling. I don't know that. That's beyond by expertise.

QUESTION: Can you exactly...


QUESTION: ... sample of the spores...


QUESTION: Can you say who has tested positive? How many from your staff? How many Capitol Police officers? How many other officers?

DASCHLE: I would rather -- as I understand it, approximately 25 of my staff have -- I won't -- tested positive is not the right way to phrase it. They had a positive nasal swab, which is a different -- the only indication that we have from that nasal swab is that they were exposed. That's all that means. It doesn't mean they were infected. It doesn't mean that they've been tested. It just means that they had that exposure.

And, again, if I could go back, my staff wants to be sure that I clarify that over the next couple of days, in order to ensure that we have been able to screen the environment properly in the most expeditious way possible, we are going to look at the other three buildings and we will excuse our staff in order to do that -- from those buildings.

We're still going to be in session today and tomorrow -- senators are going to be voting. We'll be using the Capitol building. But to expedite the ability to ensure that we have the opportunity to examine completely the environmental circumstances we're facing in the three office buildings, we'll be doing that.

QUESTION: Who were the other (inaudible) that test positive for the nasal swab?

DASCHLE: There are only two categories: Capitol Police and staff.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle, is there concern that by quarantining your staff members on the day that they found the anthrax, you may have exposed more people to the anthrax? The day that the letter was found, the staff was quarantined in that office. Is there concern that...

DASCHLE: Let me ask one of the experts to -- Doctor Parker, do you want to answer that?

PARKER: The word quarantine is a little harsh. There were identified and they were put aside so that we knew who they were. And it wasn't a quarantine, and they weren't held in a room with where the anthrax was.

QUESTION: General Parker another question if we may. If in fact it was just for -- as you said -- doesn't that mean that in fact this is not a necessarily a quote "particularly virulent strain", and may in fact may be rather common variety anthrax?

PARKER: I agree with you. It's common variety from all our testing at this point in time.

DASCHLE: Thank you all very much.


BROWN: Senator Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, the minority leader, and assorted experts running through the situation in the Hart office building, where Senator Daschle's office -- 31 people testing positive for exposure to anthrax. Most of those are staffers in his office. Some of them are Capitol Police.

No one has tested positively for an anthrax infection. The senator went to some length to make the distinction -- and we shall, too, again -- between exposure to and infection with. They are different and -- vastly different in terms of possible outcomes.

A couple of other things: He said they were sending the staff home. The Senate was going to continue to conduct business. But to expedite the checks in the three office buildings where senators work, they are going to send the staff home. And then he went back and said: But we're going to be voting.

How much real work is getting done and how much is to send a message, it's a little hard to tell. But, clearly, they want to send a message that whatever this is not shutting down the government, while, at the same time, they can't ignore the fact that whoever is doing this has found an extraordinary way to get attention by attacking the Congress of the United States, by attacking -- by sending this stuff to media outlets.

This is guaranteed ways to get maximum exposure. And that part does seem to be working awfully well, unfortunately.

Back to Atlanta and Dr. Sanjay Gupta -- Sanjay, "pure spores." When I heard it, that didn't sound good. And then I heard the explanation of it and it sounded better. Tell me what it ought to sound like. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think that the general sort of put it into a little bit of perspective here: pure spores more likely to be maybe naturally occurring.

That fact, along with the fact that underneath the electron microscope, the scanning microscope, this does appear to be sensitive to all antibiotics, that also provides fodder for the argument that this is naturally occurring. So I think that...

BROWN: I'm sorry. But naturally occurring here is different -- it doesn't mean it wasn't put there.

GUPTA: Oh, absolutely not, no.

There has been a lot of confusion about all those terms, Aaron. If I could take one second to sort of clarify


BROWN: Please do.

GUPTA: Naturally occurring does not mean that the spores weren't necessarily A, put there, or B, somehow manipulated to make them more -- to make them smaller and more likely to cause infection.

That whole process by some is referred to as weaponizing. If you go back and check those strains of bacteria, they are still going to be -- quote, unquote -- "naturally occurring." But they're probably not going to be antibiotic resistant. When you actually make something antibiotic resistant, that's when you're talking about genetic manipulations. That's sort of the purpose of these genetic manipulations: to make them more antibiotic resistant.

We're seeing that these are sensitive to all antibiotics, making it less likely that they were manipulated genetically. It doesn't mean that they weren't weaponized or put there for intentional purposes.

BROWN: And just because I'm slower than most here, when we talk about making these spores smaller, the smaller they are, the more easily they are ingested, or they get literally in the body, right?


And, actually, to be very, very specific, we're actually talking about a particular size of spore that would be the most ideal for this mischief. Too small a spore would actually be breathed into the nose and breathed right out again. A too-large spore would actually not ever make it down into the lungs. There is a particular size of spore that is the ideal size to be a weapon, to be a biological weapon. And that does take a certain degree of technological sophistication to get it that right size, not necessarily too small or too big.

BROWN: Sanjay, thanks. I have no doubt we will be talking again as the afternoon goes on. One other note that came across our desk here, at BWI, Baltimore Washington International, one of what they call a pier, which sounds to us as one of the places where the plane pulls up -- I mean, there are several gates there -- five gates -- was shut down and evacuated after a white powdery substance was found in a trash can. It's being checked out. And so there's no indication whether that is yet another or just another concern.

There are a lot of both -- Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: That's right, Aaron, a lot of sort of scary, questionable circumstances out there. And we're doing our best to try sort to it all out. But we hope those of you who are listening and watching will bear with us, because this information is coming to us in ways that we just can't possibly process it immediately. It takes time. And we are trying to ask the people who have some answers to help us understand what's going on.

I want to go back to the Capitol now to our two congressional correspondents, Jon Karl and Kate Snow.

And come to you, Jon, first, because you were reporting just before we heard from Senator Daschle that they seem to be pulling back on the level of alarm that they were sending out yesterday.

KARL: Significantly pulling back, Judy.

If you remember, yesterday, Senator Daschle came to the microphones and he said -- and I want to read his quote from then -- he said, "We were told it was a very strong form of anthrax, a very potent form of anthrax, which was clearly produced by somebody who knew what he or she was doing" -- well, now Senator Daschle saying yes, a very pure form of anthrax, but pure doesn't necessarily mean strong in this case.

And the significant thing we learned from this briefing is that this anthrax was responding -- completely responding -- to antibiotics, which means that it an eminently treatable form of anthrax. We also heard Senator Daschle talk about the people who initially tested positive for exposure to anthrax. Now, they will get final results in about 36 hours to see if any of those actually caught anthrax from that.

And their understanding is -- their hope and their belief is that it will be far fewer than that 31 that got that initial nose swab exposure -- so an effort here really to turn the temperature down. But they will be remaining in session. That's a very important symbol -- the senator saying they don't want to send a symbol that they are going to let this stop the business of the people, stop the business of the Congress.

But while they are remaining in session, they will be closing down the various Senate office buildings. There are three main office buildings right next to the Capitol Building where the senators have their offices. And they are going to go building by building and sweep those offices, excuse the staff, allow them to get home, just to be sure this anthrax did not spread anywhere.

And, as you heard in that briefing, so far they have no evidence that this anthrax spread anywhere beyond Daschle's office and the mailroom. Those are the only two places they have found any positive response for the test of the presence for anthrax -- so a real effort here to turn the temperature down.

WOODRUFF: So, Jon, two locations, presumably very close to each other: the office where they opened the mail and then the mailroom -- and 31 people exposed, according to these early tests, but no evidence yet that anyone has contracted anthrax. It is going to take time for these further tests to show that.

Now, Kate...

KARL: As a matter of fact...

WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

KARL: Just one thing: If you heard Scott Lillibridge, who is the person for the Health and Human Services that deals with bioterrorism, he said, "Is anybody sick?" And the answer, "not that we are aware of." "Is this contagious?" "No."

Again, they're trying to say: Look, there is no signs that anybody at all is sick, and even if somebody were to get sick, this is eminently treatable.

WOODRUFF: Now, Kate -- Kate Snow is also there with Jon at the Capitol. Kate, they are already moving people, more people away from the Hart building. Is that right?

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, but let me clarify.

I just got off the phone with Lieutenant Dan Nichols of the Capitol Hill Police, explaining this to me. He says they simply have run out of room, Judy. They had about -- I think about 400 people in line just about 15, 20 minutes ago to be swabbed, people who worried about exposure that were waiting to have nasal swabs taken from them.

They simply don't fit in this building. There was too much of a line. The line was wrapping around the atrium. So they've decided to move them into a building just adjacent here, another one of the Senate office buildings -- Lieutenant Nichols saying he does not believe this has anything to do with later plans that they may have to remove people from the buildings and do some more environmental testing.

That was alluded to by Senator Daschle. Separately, a separate source tells me that they believe the Senate office buildings will be closed down tomorrow for environmental testing. And this aide that I was talking to is on the House side. And it's interesting. The take that the House has on all this is a little bit different than what you are seeing out of the Senate: House aides saying that they think it is prudent to take a break here. The, House, of course, is planning on taking a break later this afternoon. They're doing some voting right now on some issues in the House. And then they probably will be out of here mid-afternoon. House office buildings are going to be closed, we're told, at 7:00 p.m. I can also tell you that all of the House members -- most of them anyway -- there are 432 serving right now in the House -- are in a meeting right now, in a closed-door meeting in one of their buildings talking about the situation.

We expect to hear from House leader Dick Gephardt and from House Speaker Dennis Hastert at about 1:30 Eastern time, about 20 minutes from now. So we will know more from the House perspective on all this in about 20 minutes -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: But, again, Kate, no evidence, no sign of even any exposure on the House side, right? We're just talking about one Senate office building, one office, one mailroom, right?

SNOW: That's right.

There's been sort of an interesting dynamic here today, Judy, which is, this all happened on the Senate side. The news was coming out of Senator Daschle's office. Senator Daschle, apparently, mentioned all this this morning at a breakfast meeting that the four leaders had. The two House leaders and two Senate leaders had a meeting with President Bush this morning.

And that's why the House got concerned and took this action of shutting down early today. And now you are hearing from the Senate, as Jon Karl was saying, a little more restraint. So it's sort of gone back and forth here, but originally all of this coming out of the one isolated case, the one letter that was sent and opened on Monday in Senator Daschle's office -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, and, Kate, we may know a little bit more about what the House has planned. We are going to be hearing, I'm told, from Speaker Dennis Hastert and from the House Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt, at 1:30. Is that right, in about 10 minutes?

SNOW: Yes, I had mentioned that just a moment ago. That's right.

WOODRUFF: That's right, just to underline that.

So, Kate, you're working on the story. We know, of course, that Jon Karl is working on the story. Thanks to both of you. And we'll let you go back to work for a few minutes here.

Joining me now in the studio while we wait for more information from the Capitol is Javed Ali. He is a senior research associate for Jane's Defence.

And, Javed, you and I were talking just a minute ago, but let's go through this step by step in terms of what we've heard. What is going on right now, would you assume or would you believe, in the Senate office building and beyond, where they're trying to determine just how far these spores have spread?

JAVED ALI, CNN BIOTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I think some of those steps were outlined during the press conference that Senator Daschle and Senator Lott presided over.

But I think what they're trying to assess is looking specifically within Senator Daschle's office as to how extensive the coverage of the bacteria or the spores might possibly be and if there's any possibility for those spores to have somehow escaped, then, into area outside his particular office.

WOODRUFF: But how would they go about doing that? They are taking -- we did hear them say they have already taken some samples of the ventilation system. But would that mean you would only check the ventilation system in the immediate area of that office, or would you look down in the basement of the building, for example?

ALI: It would depend on sort of the schematics or the engineering or the architecture of that particular building. Where every twist and turn occurs within the ventilation of the Senate office of that particular Senate office building, I'm not particularly sure. I'm sure they are probably going to be very thorough in their scope of at least the environmental sampling piece of this.

WOODRUFF: Based on what you know, does it make sense for the House to be a doing thorough sweep, as we may learn that they're doing, of the House office buildings as well?

ALI: I mean, it may be prudent. I don't think it's necessarily appropriate for me to comment on what the House should or should not be doing.


ALI: But I think it's probably prudent. But then again, I'm just not -- I just don't really have a good answer on that one.

WOODRUFF: All right.

Well, let me just, then, finally go back to this question of pure spores vs. highly potent spores. We went -- we heard Senator Daschle -- and Jon Karl elaborated on this a little bit -- yesterday say that these seemed to be very potent. Today, we're hearing it's just that they're pure. Help us out here.

ALI: I think when -- at least the comments now coming out saying that the particular -- the material is found to be -- the bacteria is in a pure form, meaning that it has not been manipulated beyond sort of the state that it exists in nature.

So it's not been genetically modified to any certain extent. It has just been manufactured to be delivered in this powdered form. But beyond that, the organism is itself. It is the bacillus anthracis organism.

WOODRUFF: Does that mean it's any less dangerous than what it would be if it had been...

ALI: Engineered?

WOODRUFF: ... engineered in some manner?

ALI: It's still a dangerous organism, because if you do contract -- certainly contract the pulmonary form of the disease, that is the most lethal form of disease. And some of these individuals in Senator Daschle's office apparently tested positive -- or their nasal swabs tested positive for the presence of the bacteria in their nasal passages, meaning that somewhere, at sometime within that particular office, they came into contact with the spores of the bacteria that were somehow aerosolized.

WOODRUFF: All right, Javed Ali is a senior research associate at "Jane's Defence" and has been working and has done writing, considerable writing on biological terrorism. Thanks very much. And we'll be coming back to you throughout the day.




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