We were amused, more than anything else, at the Herald’s snippy editorial regarding the controversy over lab workers who got infected with tularemia while doing research at a Boston University laboratory. If the editorial was the only thing you had read about this incident, you might fully agree with the Herald’s view. But the editorial leaves out a lot of important information about the incident.
We thought it might be an interesting exercise to see how the Herald’s editorial reads with the missing facts inserted. So we’ve reprinted the whole editorial, in normal text, below. We’ve added the bold text — for "completeness." (The facts are from the Boston Globe articles on the incident — there are links in our previous post here.)
We knew the Conservation Law Foundation was full of obstructionists (odd usage — would you call trying to force the MBTA to fulfill its Big Dig-related promises to extend the Green Line "obstructionist"?), but who knew it was full of such sore losers, too?
One of the more pathetic e-mails to come our way in a while was the offer sent to several media outlets yesterday to chat with CLF president Phil Warburg about the "developing story of the infection of 3 researchers at a Boston University lab.”
And why would we want to do that, again?
This non-story – which enjoyed prominent, if bewildering, coverage in that other paper in town – goes something like this. Three Boston University researchers at a Biosafety Level 2 lab were infected with the lethal biological agent tularemia last May and September. Inexplicably, no one realized that there might be a problem until the third worker became ill in September, even though the two workers who got sick in May showed symptoms of tularemia, the very agent they were working with. The infections were properly reported to public health authorities, except that BU was legally required to report them within 24 hours but in fact waited two weeks after receiving confirmation that the infection had occurred, Mayor Tom Menino was given a heads up (two weeks later than he should have been) and the researchers recovered. Since there was no public health threat, there was no public disclosure at the time. Nonetheless, BU considered the incident to be serious enough that the senior scientist in charge of the research was removed from his position as chief of infectious diseases and was ordered to stop all tularemia research.
That all this occurred while Menino, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Gov. Mitt Romney and many others were pushing the approval of the siting of a Biosafety Level 4 lab in the South End is irrelevant. Unless you think that an institution’s track record of being able to detect accidental infections with dangerous pathogens, and of complying with the laws relating to reporting such infections to the proper authorities, might be relevant to that institution’s desire to open a lab for research on highly dangerous pathogens.
The new federal research lab – which has since received local and state approvals – will indeed house dangerous biological agents, like anthrax and plague, but only under the strictest security conditions in the field. The tularemia lab also had security protocols that should have prevented the infections, but the researchers ignored some of those protocols. Unfortunately, there is no way to eliminate the possibility of human beings doing things that they are not supposed to do.
For CLF to resort to scare tactics at this late date and then suggest some kind of cover-up is simply shameful. But it’s par for the course for an organization in danger of becoming as irrelevant to the debate on the environmental consequences of bioterror research, as this non-story clearly was.
Oh, and memo to CLF public relations gurus: The Herald’s food editor, who’s on the CLF media e-mail list, doesn’t want to talk to Warburg either.
To me, anyway, when all the facts of the tularemia incident are included, the Herald’s editorial makes no sense at all. One can certainly argue that the problems with the tularemia incident shouldn’t disqualify BU from building the new lab (although I would respectfully disagree), but to say that the incident is "irrelevant" is just silly. And to say that it’s "pathetic" to want to talk about it is irresponsible.
We have no comment, however, on CLF’s presumably unintentional notification to the Herald’s food editor.