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I worked for Joe Biden when he dealt with the anthrax attack | Column
When letters laced with anthrax were mailed to U.S. senators, I was his chief scientist and watched his smart response.
Workers in biohazard suits continue with anthrax decontamination steps outside the Hart Senate office building, Nov. 7, 2001, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert)
Workers in biohazard suits continue with anthrax decontamination steps outside the Hart Senate office building, Nov. 7, 2001, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert) [ KENNETH LAMBERT | AP ]
Published Oct. 17, 2020

Nineteen years ago a terrorist mailed anthrax-laced letters to American journalists and to U.S. senators. The first man to die was Boca Raton photographer Bob Smith. My boss at the time, Sen. Joe Biden, demonstrated his cool leadership both on 9/11 and then, barely a week later, during the first biological terrorist attack. I had joined Biden’s staff as chief scientist just a couple of weeks before hell broke loose.

Peter Zimmerman
Peter Zimmerman [ Courtesy of Peter Zimmerman ]

On Sept. 18, 2001, a rolling catastrophe began. Five envelopes laced with anthrax spores were mailed in Princeton, N.J. The first one landed in the offices of the National Enquirer in Boca Raton, where the first hint of trouble emerged when Enquirer photographer Bob Smith came down with a high fever, confusion and vomiting on Sept. 30. By Oct. 3 it was clear that Smith had inhalational anthrax, something usually only seen in sheep ranchers and veterinarians. No precautions were taken, and the incident was viewed as isolated foul play. Smith died on Oct. 5.

In the next few days reports of additional envelopes with white or tan powders landing at the New York Post, Tom Brokaw’s office at NBC, at ABC, and elsewhere flowed in.

On Oct. 9 the U.S. Senate was anthraxed, with letters going to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The Daschle letter was opened in a mail room and the white powder inside spread through the room and then throughout the Hart Senate Office Building. It also got into the air conditioning system that served both the Hart and Dirksen office buildings. Senate aides clamored for tests to make certain we were not exposed. Sen. Biden and others prevailed on the Capitol physician’s office to offer tests to anybody who was worried.

Testing was first set up in the Hart Building. However, I suggested to Sen. Biden that it might not be a good idea to bring everybody into the building where the attack took place. The tests were moved to another building, and finally completely off site to the gymnasium of a school.

I was sure I hadn’t been in the building after the spores were released and didn’t go for testing. On the last day tests were offered Sen. Biden asked me how my test came out. I explained. He put an arm on my shoulder and asked if I shouldn’t be tested to be certain. “Man,” he said, “do it for your wife. She’s got to know you’re safe.” So I did, and a few days later got the expected all clear.

While testing continued, the police and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were making plans to seal both office buildings and decontaminate them. On less than an hour’s notice everybody was tossed out of the buildings. Take what you can carry; you’re not coming back in.

Biden arranged for the entire staff, Republican as well as Democrats, to get some laptop computers and work in the committee’s ceremonial office in the Capitol itself. He called the staff together and announced that space would be tight for months, and that if we were worried about our health, we could work from home. But we decided that if the boss with a wife and a young daughter could make the trip in, so could we.

After listening to scientific advice, Biden quickly grasped what the United States would require in future medical emergencies: N95 masks in large numbers to protect citizens and medical personnel; gowns and gloves; testing kits and nasal swabs; and finally enormous numbers of ciprofloxacin tablets plus doxycycline, erythromycin and vancomycin antibiotics.

The nation’s emergency drug supply would require augmentation, and the whole country required a beefed-up distribution system. Beyond that, he suggested a global disease surveillance system, since the next medical catastrophe could be natural or manmade, and might be a disease for which neither a vaccine nor a cure existed. Ebola came to mind.

I drafted the bill, and Sen. Biden introduced it along with many cosponsors from both sides of the aisle. It twice passed the Senate unanimously. And it twice died in the Republican-controlled House where then-Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana suggested without evidence that the anthrax spores had been “genetically modified” by Saddam Hussein’s regime. On the Oct. 10 Howard Stern show, Donald Trump said he was the only person who didn’t have a course of Ciprofloxacin at home, just in case. He claimed that 25 percent of patients got “unbelievably sick by taking it.” He would not take it, even if exposed to anthrax. But he has hinted that the American people should take a COVID-19 vaccine that hasn’t passed the FDA’s safety standards.

In the end 17 people were infected during the anthrax attack, and five people, mostly postal workers, died. The clean-up cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Peter D. Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist, was chief scientist of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is emeritus professor of science & security, War Studies Department, King’s College London. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times