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Three Boston University Researchers Exposed to Tularemia Last Year, Officials Confirm

Three Boston University researchers last year contracted tularemia from their exposure to the pathogen in a university laboratory, the Associated Press reported yesterday (see GSN, Oct. 8, 2004).

The researchers violated procedures to protect them from exposure, but university officials could not say exactly how they were infected. Two researchers were sickened in May and the third in September. All three received antibiotics and recovered.

Tularemia is noncommunicable, so the exposures posed no danger to the public, according to officials, and neither the university nor any government entities publicly disclosed the incidents until this week, AP reported.

Meanwhile, the university is moving ahead with plans for a Biosafety Level 4 laboratory, which would house research on deadly agents such as plague and anthrax. The Boston Zoning Commission last week approved the laboratory, which still must be approved by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, according to AP.

The Conservation Law Foundation said the tularemia exposures underscore the dangers of studying infectious agents in a highly populated urban area.

The assurances that BU has given that it can maintain perfect control of these facilities are called into question,” said Philip Warburg, the group’s president. “We’re also disturbed that this incident is only coming to light today.”

Thomas Moore, acting provost of the university’s medical campus, said the tularemia exposures were not relevant to the debate over the new facility, because safety precautions there would be far more stringent than at the Level 2 laboratory.

“The security levels in a BSL-4 laboratory are so far beyond what you would see in a BSL-2 laboratory that this would never happen there,” he said. “This has for sure heightened our awareness and attentiveness to safety issues in labs that operate at a lower level of security” (Associated Press/ SouthCoastToday.com, Jan. 19).

NTI Analysis