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FBI Investigating Boston Tularemia Exposures

Last year’s exposures of three Boston University researchers to tularemia are being investigated by a number of agencies, including the FBI, the Associated Press reported yesterday (see GSN, Jan. 20).

The FBI is mandated to investigate any release of biological agents that could be used by terrorists, according to AP.

Under Massachusetts state law, public health agencies must be notified “immediately, but in no case more than 24 hours” after the release of a reportable disease is identified, said Dr. Anita Barry, Boston’s director of communicable disease control.

Researchers became ill in May and September of last year, and test results returned Oct. 28 indicated they had been working with contaminated material, according to AP. Work with the pathogen stopped Nov. 4, but the state Department of Public Health and the Boston Public Health Commission were not notified until several days afterward.

Thomas Moore, acting provost of the university’s medical campus, said Wednesday that he could not explain the delay.

“I have been unable to come up with reasons why time went by from the 28th to the 9th,” Moore told the Boston Globe, adding that when laboratory personnel received the Oct. 28 test results, “they must have assumed something was amiss.”

Peter Rice would no longer serve as the BU chief of infectious disease as his inadequate leadership contributed to safety problems at the laboratory, university officials said (Associated Press/Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Jan. 20).

Meanwhile, residents opposing construction near their homes of a Level-4 biohazard laboratory at Boston University are suing the school, the state and the city in hopes of stopping the project.

The 10 plaintiffs claim that the defendants ignored environmental laws, did not seriously examine alternative sites and failed to adequately study the potential for a biohazard incident, the Boston Herald reported.

“We never trusted them, and now everyone sees what we’ve been talking about,” said Rose Arruda, referring to news of the tularemia exposures.

The litigation is “completely without merit,” said Boston University spokeswoman Ellen Berlin, adding that the new laboratory would have the highest level of security and that the type of error that led to last year’s exposures “would not have happened” in a Level-4 facility (Jessica Fargen, Boston Herald, Jan. 20).

NTI Analysis