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Breakthrough may be close in anthrax probe

From Susan Candiotti

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Investigators appear to be on the verge of cracking the genetic sequencing of the anthrax strain that has killed five Americans since the fall, a source close to the federal investigation said.

An announcement on the breakthrough could be made this week. The FBI and the U.S. Postal Service have been trying to locate the person or group that began sending anthrax-laced letters through the mail in mid-September to Senate offices in Washington and media outlets in New York and Florida.

Two of the five people who died from inhalation anthrax were postal employees.

All the deaths were traced to the Ames strain of the bacteria, first isolated in Iowa and maintained by the U.S. Army since 1980 for testing purposes. The CIA also uses small amounts of the strain for research.

Discovering the genetic sequencing could reveal the age of the deadly strain sent in the letters and might lead investigators to the laboratory or laboratories where it was produced, sources said.

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They said, however, even that information might not be enough to turn up a suspect, because so many scientists have access to anthrax for research purposes.

Investigators have questioned workers at several laboratories in the United States, Canada and Great Britain.

"We're not there just yet," one government official said.

The potent anthrax spores found in the letter sent to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, were being analyzed at the Army's biological warfare research laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Investigators said they hope the analysis also would help them locate the laboratory that produced the strain. Leahy's letter contained the largest amount of anthrax.

Other letters were mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, NBC's Tom Brokaw and the editor of the New York Post.

CNN also confirmed Monday the FBI was investigating the loss or theft of more than two dozen potentially dangerous biological samples a decade ago from the military labs at Fort Detrick. The samples included anthrax microbes.

An FBI source said the disappearance dates to 1991. The FBI investigation began after the first anthrax attacks last October, but it was unclear how long the FBI has been looking into the missing microbes.

Also this week, the FBI and Postal Service were expected to announce the reward in the anthrax probe will nearly double, to $2.5 million. Authorities said they hope to publish a flier with the latest anthrax information.

Florida photo editor Robert Stevens, who died October 5, was the first victim in the anthrax outbreaks. No letter was discovered in that case, but anthrax spores were found throughout the American Media International building in Boca Raton where Stevens worked.

The other deaths were in New York, the Washington, D.C., area and Connecticut.


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