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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Souvenirs 

The good news is that Qubit, the Token Reader -- prodigal, prodigy, and (we like to flatter ourselves) protégé -- is blogging again after an absence of many months. The bad news is that we now have one more reliable source of consistently bad news:
The bacterium detected by the CDC, francisella tularensis, though naturally occurring in rodents (hence the disease name "rabbit fever"), is an extremely well-known bioweapons agent. For instance, the US Air Force handbook on operations in a CB warfare environment lists it right between plague and smallpox, and states that it has a 30% fatality rate when untreated. SAB-TR-97-01 (warning: 358 page PDF) list it as "[p]rime for agent of mass destruction or mass illness when employed under suitable conditions." Even Pravda on the Potomac notes in their article that the US tested it as a BW agent in the 1960s. Now, if you were developing biological weapons and wanted to test infection rates without arousing suspicion in the form of a local epidemic, what better way than infecting a few people at a large event from which they will be leaving to the far corners of the country, using an agent that is not usually transmittable from human-to-human? Also, protesters are certainly considered expendable at best to the current administration, and as I noted in my first BW post, it's not like there isn't a history of clandestine tests of bioweapons on US civilian populations.
Why do we mention it? Because D.C. area health authorities detected "small amounts of potentially dangerous tularemia bacteria in the Mall area last weekend" -- where, as it happened, somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 citizens had gathered to protest the war in Iraq.

RELATED SIDEBAR: Highly encouraging news from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Amid growing concerns that avian influenza will develop into a deadly pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is under fire by some in the scientific community for hoarding data crucial for vaccine development. The allegations come as CDC has issued new and controversial rules on what data, documents and other information it will — and will not — share with the public.

Open government advocates are critical of the CDC's "Information Security" manual, the 34-page document that gives officials 19 categories to shield data from public scrutiny without obtaining a "secret" classification.

That runs counter to CDC's mission, says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy, which first published the leaked manual on its Web site.

"The CDC is not the CIA," Aftergood said. "Withholding data is not just bad public policy, it is bad science," he said, because it impedes the processes of peer review and the scientific replication of results. He called the CDC's policies "just baffling."

Tom Skinner, spokesman for CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding, could not respond when asked about the manual on handling "sensitive but unclassified" information, which was released July 22, because he had not seen it. He asked a reporter to e-mail a copy to him . . . .

One unnamed National Institutes of Health researcher told Nature that, other than the occasional large deposits of data required by journals to accompany published papers, information from CDC is "coming through an eye dropper."

Influenza researchers said their work would progress faster if they could access the disease control agency's databases of virus sequences and immunological and epidemiological data . . . .

One potential concern that the CDC may have about sharing data is how it would affect any partnership it might now have with vaccine manufacturers, said David Webster, president of Webster Consulting Group, a health industry consulting firm based in Pennsylvania. The CDC might be concerned that those manufacturers might not be able to recoup their investment if the information is made widely available, he said.
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