Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Pathogen infects Boston researchers

Boston University recently acknowledged three researchers became infected with the bacterium tularemia in 2004. The incident occurred during lab testing aimed at finding a vaccine for the disease.

Although the pathogen is rarely fatal, and all three researchers recovered, the incident has raised concerns over the safety of biomedical research.

Jim Tracy, University of Wisconsin Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Training, said few researchers actually become ill from working with dangerous pathogens.


“I believe it’s extremely rare,” he said. “Working in a laboratory is very safe.”

Still, infections can occur.

“There have been instances of laboratory infections,” Tracy said.

Tracy added most infections occur when researchers accidentally stick themselves with needles carrying pathogens; however, researchers working with dangerous pathogens typically do not use needles.

Tracy could not recall any similar incidents happening at UW.

“As a campus, we work very carefully and very safely with organisms,” he said.

UW researchers work with level-three pathogens. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, exposure to level-three pathogens can cause “disease [with] serious or lethal consequences.”

The university researches pathogens affecting plants, animals and people. Tracy was reluctant to disclose which particular pathogens UW researches. He did say they include influenza and monkey pox, a disease which affected wildlife across the Midwest in a 2003 outbreak.

Still, laboratory practice at BU may not have been at its best.

According to Tracy, there are four main safety levels of pathogen research. The simplest laboratory would have researchers working under a safety level one, he added.

While level-one pathogens are the safest, Tracy said, level-four pathogens like smallpox and the Ebola virus are the most dangerous to work with.

Tularemia, a level-two pathogen, falls in the same level as E. coli. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, level-two pathogens are “associated with human disease.”

Safety levels determine which safety precautions, known as biocontainment procedures, researchers must use when studying pathogens.

Eric Scolaro, an assistant researcher in a level-two laboratory at Loyola University, said all research tools must be decontaminated after being used. Additionally, Scolaro said any waste generated by the research must be sterilized before it can be disposed of.

Although the reasons for the accident are uncertain, some have already begun to speculate.

According to Tracy, failure to conform to the proper biocontainment procedures likely caused the contamination at BU.

“At Boston, they were working with a vaccine [that] was relatively safe,” Tracy said. “[The Boston University researchers] did not follow procedure. Biosafety all depends on people following the protocol that protects them.”

Even with proper biosafety standards, BU researchers may have made another fumble.

Despite tularemia vaccine research being relatively safe, the use of rabbit blood in the laboratory may have caused complications, since researchers were not aware of what pathogens were present in the blood, according to Tracy.

“When they started working with unknown samples, they should have improved their procedures,” he said.

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