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Sunday, October 14, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Anthrax confirmed at Microsoft in Reno; 5 more cases in Florida

The Washington Post

Federal officials confirmed yesterday that a letter sent to a Microsoft subsidiary in Reno, Nev., contained anthrax spores, as law-enforcement and health officials scrambled to investigate a growing number of illnesses and suspicious letters.

In New York, physicians are investigating a possible new case of anthrax infection at NBC, and in Florida, officials reported five new cases of anthrax exposure at the American Media office building, bringing the number of infected employees to eight. One man has died. Authorities said that none of the new people found infected has displayed any symptoms, and all are being treated with antibiotics.

In New York City, health officials report that a second employee has shown symptoms of skin anthrax exposure. A personal assistant to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw already is known to be infected with a form of anthrax, apparently after she handled a letter postmarked in Trenton on Sept. 18.

And in Edison, N.J., a man who works at the Ford Motor plant in Edison, N.J., has had an ambiguous test result for anthrax, and is undergoing additional tests. The man, 58, had a rash on his body similar to the type for cutaneous anthrax, and he went to a hospital, where a nurse notified the FBI, according to the FBI's Newark Field Office.

Postmarks significant?

The letters and additional test results raise new questions about a possible concerted attempt to spread the rare and often deadly disease. The letter to Microsoft was postmarked in Malaysia and the letter to NBC was postmarked in Trenton, N.J. Both are believed to have relatively heavy concentrations of operatives and supporters of Osama bin Laden, intelligence experts say.

Jersey City was the cradle of the plot to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. And bin Laden associates met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city, in January 2000 to help plan the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen later that year.

FBI officials are pursuing a possible link between the anthrax cases and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. But they emphasized that it is too soon to gauge the importance of the postmarks.

"These cases are all at different stages," one FBI official said. "It's really too early for us to make any judgments yet."

Five Microsoft employees in Reno and a family member of one employee were being tested for anthrax but as of yesterday afternoon, examinations of their skin, noses and throats have found no trace of anthrax.

The letter included several pages of pornographic pictures, apparently ripped out of a magazine.

Further testing on letter

The letter was sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for further tests. By today, those tests are expected to reveal the strain of anthrax.

Nevada officials praised Microsoft employees for quickly realizing the letter was something of concern and minimizing its handling. The company would not name the employees involved, but such a letter would likely have come in contact with accountants at the office and supervisors called to investigate something out of the ordinary.

About 75 people work at the Reno office, a subsidiary that handles software licenses issued to computer manufacturers. The office had sent the letter, containing a check, to a manufacturer in Malaysia. The envelope came back containing the check and pornography pages, including one tainted with anthrax.

Word that the letter may indeed be anthrax traveled quickly yesterday among employees, who had been told Friday that a preliminary test did not indicate the letter was a risk.

There were no reports yesterday of any suspicious letters to Microsoft's Redmond headquarters, where executives used e-mail and voice mail to reassure employees. The company employs about 23,500 locally and 47,600 altogether.

"We recognize that this situation is potentially unsettling but I would urge everyone to wait for the final test results before drawing any conclusions," Rick Devenuti, vice president and chief information officer, said in an e-mail explaining the situation. He said health officials had assured the company that "there is virtually no risk to anyone other than the small number of employees who came into direct contact with the material, since person-to-person spread of anthrax is extremely unlikely."

Even before the Reno incident, Redmond police met with Microsoft to discuss precautions in case of a terrorist incident. Like police around the country, they are discussing precautions with major employers and increasing their visibility on the streets to reassure residents, said Lt. Shari Shovlin.

In New York, the investigation took a new turn as city health officials found a second female NBC employee with signs of anthrax infection. She had a low-grade fever, headaches and lesions, which a spokesman defined as sores that do not appear to be healing.

This woman was the NBC employee who first opened the letter from Trenton on Sept. 19 or 20, and found a brown granular substance inside.

"At the time she opened this, some brown stuff spilled out," said Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News. "She thought nothing of it at the time. It was long before Florida, the anthrax scare. It was placed with some of the hate mail."

The letter was passed onto Brokaw's assistant, Erin O'Connor. A few days later a letter arrived from St. Petersburg, Fla., containing a white substance. Then NBC news staffers began trying to track down any other letters with white substances.

At that point, the second woman recalled opening a letter with a brown substance.

O'Connor, meanwhile, had fallen ill, as what she had thought was a mosquito bite near her collarbone spread into an inch-and-a-half black rash. "It was more than a rash," said her father, John O'Connor. "It looked like something had gouged it out."

City and federal health officials described her symptoms as mild. But her father said his daughter became quite ill the weekend of Sept. 29. "She had a very high fever," he said. "She got a little delirious from it."

The reports of new anthrax cases in Florida come one day after the FBI announced that only one of the nearly 1,000 nasal swabs of company employees, contractors, messengers and relatives had tested positive for the disease. Now, more sensitive blood tests, which measure a body's response to an infection, have found five new cases. Employees of AMI were advised yesterday to continue taking antibiotics, said AMI general counsel Michael Kahane.

"Five people have tested positive for anthrax, which would indicate that at some point in their lives, they have had exposure," said Kahane, who said he arranged with Florida officials to provide antibiotics for as long as necessary. He said he was afraid that employees had interpreted Friday's FBI news as a reason to stop taking the medicine.

Two of the five whose blood tested positive work for the National Enquirer, according to an Enquirer employee who was briefed by an editor and spoke on condition of anonymity. One employee has a fever, but it is unclear whether the fever is connected to anthrax.

AMI owns both the Enquirer and the Sun.

Three of the employees found to be infected do not handle mail and sit in a separate section of the third floor, far from Bob Stevens, the Sun photo editor who died Oct. 5 from anthrax. They work near the Sun.

News of the new infections rattled employees.

"It's like what does this mean? The infestation is more widespread than we thought, and it came a different way," the Enquirer staffer said. "It's scary."

Seattle Times reporter Brier Dudley contributed to this report.

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