The Anthrax Attacks on Netflix: Who was responsible and how many people died?

The true story behind Netflix's newest docuseries

Two men in hazmat suits featured in Netflix documentary The Anthrax Attacks
(Image credit: Netflix/Future)

In the wake of 9/11, America was gripped by a wave of terror from another enemy. Audiences are learning more about this in new series The Anthrax Attacks on Netflix. 

The 2001 Anthrax Attacks are also commonly known by the portmanteau “Amerithrax”. The subsequent investigation became one of the biggest and most complex the FBI had ever undertaken. Beginning one week following the events of 9/11, the attacks sent the US spiralling further into panic following the terrorist attack it was already reeling from. New Netflix docuseries The Anthrax Attacks, tells the story of events through actor re-enactments. Directed by Oscar nominated director Dan Krauss, the retelling examines the story of the families involved - and the doctors making difficult decisions about their care. 

Netflix has a plethora of documentaries ready to be devoured - mostly involving true crime. Viewers are asking where is Tim Donaghy now (opens in new tab) - the former NBA referee at the centre of a gambling scandal - after watching the latest Untold installment on the streamer. Intrigue also surrounds the whereabouts of Hunter Moore now (opens in new tab) - the revenge porn criminal from Netflix’s The Most Hated Man on the Internet. Viewers of the latter are also curious where Charlotte Laws is now (opens in new tab) - the woman responsible for taking Moore down and getting a conviction.

What were the Anthrax Attacks in 2001?

On September 18, 2001 - exactly one week following 9/11 - letters laced with Anthrax were mailed to news offices and Democratic Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The following events are known as the worst biological attack in U.S. history.

According to NPR (opens in new tab), Bob Stevens of American Media in Florida was the first victim to be hospitalised with inhalation anthrax on October 4, 2001. Anthrax was then found at the offices of the National Inquirer publisher American Media, on October 9. The building was closed immediately and the FBI began their investigation the following day. 

Continuing into November, several more people were infected with the substance, including postal workers, Doctors, and even a baby of an ABC News producer was affected. One postal facility in Washington, D.C. was only able to reopen following a renovation and deep clean costing $130 million. 

It wasn’t until June 2002 that the FBI searched the residence of Steven Hatfill - a government scientist working in a Fort Derrick biodefense lab. Although Hatfill was named a person of interest, he was later exonerated and sued the New York Times for defamation. The FBI had another government scientist, Bruce Edwards Irvins, under investigation following Hatfill’s exoneration - however, Irvins took his own life in 2008. 

Approximately 25 to 30 full-time FBI investigators worked on the case, with their work involving more than 10,000 witness interviews across 6 continents. The execution of 80 searches was undertaken, recovering more than 6,000 items of potential evidence. The case was formally closed on February 19, 2010. 

Who was responsible for the Anthrax Attacks?

Bruce Ivins is widely suspected of having carried out the Anthrax Attacks, although he took his own life before any charges could be filed. He was declared the sole culprit on August 6, 2008, due to DNA evidence leading to an anthrax vial in his lab.

According to the New York Times (opens in new tab), quotes from the FBI report into the attacks said: “Dr. Ivins was psychologically disposed to undertake the mailings; his behavioral history demonstrated his potential for carrying them out; and he had the motivation and the means”. The report detailed Ivins’s secret criminal life, which included an obsession with sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma, and numerous break-ins at its offices. 

He was also alleged to show obsessive behaviour towards two laboratory technicians, stalking them and taking long night drives to deliver packages, often under assumed names.

The report continued: “A man like him, who had committed repeated acts of breaking and entering as well as burglary without having been caught, would have little difficulty mailing the letters late at night or early in the morning without being seen”. 

However, NPR continued to report that an independent review of the science used in the FBI investigation, concluded evidence was consistent with the notion Ivins could have been the perpetrator. But on its own, the science still didn’t prove Ivins’ guilt. He does however, remain the sole suspect in the case, and guilt has never been assigned to anyone else. 

Still of a threatening letter sent to a victim in Netflix documentary The Anthrax Attacks

(Image credit: Netflix)

How many people were affected by the 2001 Anthrax Attacks? 

There are 22 known people affected by the 2001 Anthrax Attacks. It cost over a billion dollars to decontaminate offices and buildings affected by the substance.

Very few doctors at the time had experience treating Anthrax, with the last reported case in the US prior to 2001 documented in 1976. According to the National Institutes of Health (opens in new tab), the use of mail to spread anthrax spores served to spur biomedical and public health communities to develop countermeasures against Anthrax and other biological threats - this included Ebola and smallpox.

A senior member of the US Army medical research institute Dr. Arthur Friedlander (opens in new tab), said at the time: “The horrendous possibility of using microbes to intentionally cause disease was realized. We were now focused on providing medical countermeasures”. 

Because anthrax infections occur infrequently, human studies for treatment were not ethical or feasible. This resulted in the FDA issuing the Animal Rule (opens in new tab) in 2002 allowing “for the approval of drugs and licensure of biological products when human efficacy studies are not ethical and field trials to study the effectiveness of drugs or biological products are not feasible”.

A still from the Netflix documentary The Anthrax Attacks

(Image credit: Netflix)

How many people died in the Anthrax Attacks?

Five people died in the anthrax attacks of 2001. Four of the five victims were directly related to the case - having opened infected letters or been in the direct firing line of opened letters.

However, the fifth and final person to die from Anthrax initially baffled investigators. The 94-year-old woman, Ottilie Lundgren, was a resident of a rural farming community. She had no connection with the media or politics, and her home and mail tested negative for Anthrax spores. 

Soil samples near her home were tested for contamination, but due to only 18 cases of inhalational Anthrax ever recorded in the US in the century prior to the attacks, bio-terrorism was still suspected. 

It was concluded that Ottilie Lundgren was the unfortunate victim of cross-contaminated mail, despite no firm evidence to prove this. 

A still from Netflix documentary The Anthrax Attacks

(Image credit: Netflix)

What does Anthrax do to humans and can you survive? 

The most serious effects of Anthrax include inability to respond to infection normally - resulting in multiple organ damage or sepsis. Inflammation of membranes and fluid covering the spinal cord and brain, can lead to haemorrhage and death.

According to Mayo Clinic (opens in new tab), Anthrax can’t be transmitted from person to person. Bacteria can enter the body through a wound, or through eating Anthrax contaminated meat, or inhaling the spores. There are four common routes of Anthrax infection, with each displaying different signs and symptoms - symptoms usually develop within six days of exposure. The American Anthrax attacks were inhalation based, although there is also cutaneous, gastrointestinal, and injection Anthrax.

Common symptoms of inhalation Anthrax include flu-like symptoms such as sore throat, fever, fatigue and muscle aches. There may also be shortness of breath, nausea, coughing up blood, painful swallowing, breathing difficulties, shock, and meningitis. Inhalation anthrax is the most deadly form, and is usually fatal even with treatment.

According to the CDC (opens in new tab), only about 10 - 15% of patients with inhalation Anthrax survive without treatment. This figure rises to 55% with aggressive treatment. Survival rates and treatment vary between the subtype of Anthrax infection. 

A still from Netflix documentary The Anthrax Attacks

(Image credit: Netflix)

When did the Anthrax Attacks stop? 

The final reported attack took place on October 12, 2001. The investigation concluded in February 2010. 

In 2002, President Bush announced an $11 billion investment over two years, to protect the US from bioterrorism. Biothrax - an anthrax vaccine, is available in the US for those aged 18 - 65, at increased risk of exposure. After exposure, the vaccine is given along with antibiotics. 

According to the CDC, 9 out of 10 people exposed to anthrax will be protected by the vaccine, but it will not completely prevent symptoms from developing.

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