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Secrecy helped create, worsen tularemia situation

The belated revelation this last week that three Boston University researchers were infected (two in May 2004) with the potentially-lethal tularemia bacterium ("rabbit fever") should trouble not only the Boston community where a planned BioSafety Level 4 lab may be built, but all communities with existing or planned "hot labs."  Excessive secrecy hinders the ability to act in an informed manner and erodes the ability of the public to hold entities and individuals accountable.

Jeanne Guillemin, the author of the new book, Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism, told POGO that:

The problems were multiple but secrecy was the worst of them. The microbiologists didn't know they were working with a virulent strain, when the first two became sick, the association with the lab was not made, when the diagnosis was confirmed, both BU and city and state government decided to keep the information from the public. Their rationale apparently was that since tularemia is not contagious, the public was not at risk. But tularemia transmits easily by air: suppose there were other cases in May that went unreported. The mortality rate for untreated tularemia, by the way, is 30 percent, as bad as the worst rate for smallpox.  BU was lucky this time but the only head to roll was that of Peter Rice, who led the research project, yet public trust depends on accountability throughout all levels of government and research institutions.  And where, we might ask, was the CDC, which seems to have kept its knowledge of these cases under wraps.

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