Bacterial Agent Sent to Elinor Caplan, the Federal Immigration Minister

Bio-Terror Scare Hits Ottawa

Source: National Post Online .html

February 1, 2001

Federal building sealed: ’We are not ruling out the possibility that this is a terrorist act,’ Mounties say

Joël-Denis Bellavance, Jane Taber and Jennifer Prittie, with files from Robert Fife, Christie Blatchford and Michael Friscolanti

National Post, with files from Southam News and Reuters

A bacterial agent sent to the office of Elinor Caplan, the federal Immigration Minister, sparked a bio-terrorism scare in Ottawa yesterday.

The downtown Ottawa building that houses the Minister’s headquarters was sealed and five people, including the woman who opened the envelope containing a coloured powder, were treated in hospital with antibiotics as a precaution.

The powder was flown by Department of National Defence jet to the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg, one of only 15 facilities in the world capable of handling the deadliest viruses.

Also sent to the Winnipeg facility were the filters from the Jean Edmonds building’s ventilation system, which had been removed by fire crews.

For the second consecutive day, the 1,500 employees at the building were told not to report for work, while specially trained members of the hazardous waste unit of the Ottawa fire department worked through the cordoned-off site.

Employees were advised to contact the Health Department if they had medical concerns.

The five mail-room employees were isolated within the Immigration building before being transferred to Ottawa Civic Hospital where they received treatment.

RCMP officers confirmed last night they are treating the incident as a possible terrorist attack.

"We are waiting for the results of the examination. But we are not ruling out the possibility that this is a terrorist act against the department," said Sergeant Marc Richer, the RCMP spokesman. He added it was the first time a government department has been targeted in this way.

The Ottawa incident led to mayhem in Toronto when authorities reacted with greater caution than usual after being presented with a suspicious package in a government building.

Nearly 2,000 public servants were forced from their offices across from the Queen’s Park legislature while Toronto firefighters took the package from the mailroom. It was later determined to be a hoax.

Officials at the Winnipeg lab were also examining a letter postmarked in Florida and sent to a Victoria Wal-Mart store that contained an oily substance. Several similar letters, purportedly contaminated with anthrax, were sent to U.S. businesses recently.

The Ottawa alert came after one of the employees working in the Minister’s office opened a plain white envelope at 11.15 a.m. on Tuesday. The employee discovered powder and a piece of paper in the envelope. Police refused to reveal where it had been sent from.

A source said the letter "was not a threat. It was unsigned. It was mostly gibberish."

The package was immediately sealed and sent to an Ottawa lab for examination before being flown to Winnipeg, officials said. An internal government memo distributed to staff said "an initial analysis of the envelope revealed some traces of bacteria."

Scientists at the Winnipeg lab -- the only one in Canada that can handle level-four pathogens such as anthrax and Ebola -- are not expected to identify the bacteria for a number of days, a Health Canada spokeswoman said.

"We don’t want to get everybody all up in arms and stuff about this," said Lynn LeSage, a spokeswoman with Health Canada.

"There have been reports that this is anthrax etc. etc. and that is completely false. We are still investigating this. People should stay calm," Ms. LeSage said.

Ms. Caplan’s officials refused to say yesterday whether the Minister was in the office when the envelope was opened. "It personally was not recommended that I take any antibiotics," Ms. Caplan told reporters after a caucus meeting.

In the House of Commons Deborah Grey, deputy leader of the Canadian Alliance, said there had been reports the substance was possibly anthrax and asked the Minister what she was doing to ensure she was "in control of this crisis that’s going on now."

Ms. Caplan called it irresponsible to speculate on the nature of the substance.

"The issues have been referred to the appropriate authorities, the RCMP and the scientists, and everything that should be done is being done," she said.

Nycole Turmel, the president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, criticized the department for wasting time between the delivery of the mysterious package and the decision to close the building.

But Ms Caplan defended the delay. "The decision was made by senior management in my department and I support that decision to close the building temporarily to ensure all the employees who work in the building are protected."

She said she is not concerned that she may have been the target of a terrorist attack. "I get hundreds of letters. Some are from people who are happy. Some are from people who are unhappy ..."

Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone, a true account about an Ebola outbreak, said the United States has assembled a team of experts who are consulted in incidents such as this to determine how serious the threat is.

"My guess is that the Canadian federal police are in touch with the U.S. FBI and with other bio-terrorism experts in the U.S," said Mr. Preston. "My gut feeling is that this is a hoax, based on two things. There have been a number of these in the U.S. which have proved to be hoaxes and any skilled bio-terrorist would not have sent anthrax in a package.

"The first effective bio-terrorism will happen when people just start dying in hospital emergency rooms."

In Toronto, police cited the incident in Ottawa as being a major reason for evacuating 2,000 people from the provincial government building on Wellesley Street and calling in bomb and bio-chemical experts.

The package, later found to be a hoax, was discovered in the mailroom at 8 a.m. Sources told the National Post that it was sent to Art Eggleton, the Minister of Defence.

Police Sergeant Ron Tapley said mailroom employees became concerned after putting the package through an X-ray machine.

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